The Shifting Axis
In politics, in economics, in football, the role of Asia is becoming more significant
Rays of sunshine are a rare thing in English international football. The last decade has been truly dire. From the Wally with the Brolly watching Scott Carson spill a shot from 40 yards in 2007 to Costa Rica going through to the knock-out stage ahead of them at the 2014 World Cup.
And then in 2016, suffering that bears comparison with that of Job in the Old Testament. First, Steve McClaren back in the studio reassuring viewers that the “only thing they’ve got is the big boy up front Sigurðsson, who really, Sigþórsson… oh my word” as Iceland scored the goal that sent England home from the Euros, before ‘Big Sam’, who joined the pantheon of England managers who have become pub quiz answers, while simultaneously chasing £400,000, dissing Roy Hodgson and criticising Prince William.
The brief moment of euphoria in 1996 when David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds sang that “Football’s Coming Home” feels like a long, long time ago. Worse, that was when England were actually in with a chance – separated from the final by the thinness of Paul Gascoigne’s bootlaces. Perhaps the problem is that we believe that football needs “to come home” and that if it does it should come to England. But even that is an illusion. True, the game was codified in London in 1863. But it was not invented there. As all aficionados know, football is first attested in Han dynasty China (206 BCE – 220 CE), where the game that involved players kicking a leather ball filled with feathers into a net held up by two bamboo rods was known as cuju – the root of the name in modern Mandarin: zú qiú.
It may be some consolation that if football is not coming home to England any time soon (to judge from 50 years of anguish and disappointment), it doesn’t look like it’s heading to China either. There have been 20 World Cups; China have qualified once. And of the three games they played in South Korea in 2002, they won none and drew none. Or to put it another way, they lost all three.
That might not be about to change any time soon, despite interest, support and resources being committed by the authorities in an ambitious Fifty Point Plan that was signed off by no less that President Xi Jinping himself – a football fan, as those who remember the famous selfie with David Cameron and Sergio Agüero at the Etihad in 2015 will know. It takes time to develop major national plans and they often do not work – as is demonstrated by the various schemes that have tried to turn the England team into a side that could win a second piece of silverware.
Few would bet on China rising to dominate the international game of tomorrow, at least based on current evidence. But for all the ups and downs of the national side, it is another, more interesting pattern that is emerging – and not just in China. It is not about football and yet it is also about football. The countries of the east are on the move, economically, politically and militarily. In today’s world, despite anxieties about Brexit, the future of Europe and the extraordinary political life of the United States, what really matters is how Russia deals with its neighbours – and whether the annexation of Crimea and the action in eastern Ukraine is the start of things to come. It really matters how the Gulf states cope with low oil and gas prices, and whether the World Bank’s gloomy outlook for Saudi Arabia proves to be accurate. It matters too how the oil- and gas-rich republics in Central Asia cope with handovers of power within small elites and how South and South-East Asian states manage relations with each other and with the world beyond at a time when spending on armaments is accelerating, and of course there is China itself, a giant whose ambitions are not limited to the football pitch but to a massive new economic and foreign policy called the One Belt, One Road initiative. The Silk Roads, the belt of countries running from the northern lip of Black Sea right the way to the Pacific are rising again.
It can be seen from the shirts of the players, where Barcelona no longer sport the logo of Unicef on the front of their strip as they did for years but discreetly tagged on the reverse. In its place is the banner identifying Qatar Airways as the sponsor whose offer was too good to turn down. Then there is Atlético Madrid, whose shirts sport a similar testimony to the power of the fossil fuels of the east: “Azerbaijan. Land of Fire” – a reference to the gas reserves so rich that places like Yanar Dag, on the edge of the Caspian Sea, produce a continuous blazing flame.
It’s a similar story in Paris, London and Manchester, where three of the biggest teams in Europe wear strips that showcase airlines of the Gulf. Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal are beneficiaries of long-term support from Emirates – so much so, in the case of the latter, that their stadium is named after them just as Manchester City’s stadium is the Etihad. It’s a long way from the sponsors of the 1980s and 1990s such as Crown Paints and Autoglass.
Football kits tell us much about the world around us, revealing who is making money, where and in which industries. No surprise then that so many clubs are supported by online gambling companies, who have been making hay in recent years as advertising laws and regulations have been relaxed. But there is more to it than sponsors throwing money at clubs to try to build brand awareness, to win new customers and keep existing clients happy. This is also about prestige and is testimony to a new world in which power (and cash) is derived from outside Europe. Nowhere is that better told than by club ownership.
When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, he was unknown – and unusual. Clubs were owned and run as autocracies, not least Chelsea itself under the iron fist of Ken Bates. But there was Martin Edwards at Manchester United, Doug Ellis at Aston Villa, and industrialists like John Hall at Newcastle, Jack Walker at Blackburn and Jack Hayward at Wolves, as well as newcomers like Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough. Clubs were owned and run by grandees and local men made good.
Things are very different today. Abramovich, who made his money from oil in Russia, was at the vanguard of a dramatic change. The fact that Abramovich’s pockets were deeper than anyone else’s (by far) was shocking; but the fact that a rich man wanted to invest into his passion for football was not in itself unusual. The speed of the transformation was astonishing. Chelsea fans had enjoyed a heady time in the 1990s when the usual relegation/promotion see-saw was replaced by FA Cup success and a victory in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997. They no longer had Mickey Hazard in the centre of the park, with Kerry Dixon up front and Clive Walker on the wing but, incredibly, Gianfranco Zola and Ruud Gullit stroking the ball in a way never seen before at Stamford Bridge up to Gianluca Vialli in the penalty box. Two of those three were in the twilight of their careers. The same could not be said for the players bought by Abramovich after 2003: no more bargain signings of those who had already scaled the heights and were playing as much for love of the game as for money. He wanted players in their prime – and was prepared to discard them quickly if they were a disappointment: £121 million was spent in the first season, and almost the same again in the second, bringing in talent, some of which didn’t work out (Juan Sebastian Verón, Adrian Mutu) but much of which did (Claude Makelele, Petr Čech, Ricardo Carvalho, Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba were the core of the side that won the title after decades spent having never even been classed among the also-rans.)
The funds lavished by Abramovich on his hobby were vast, but they ceased to be unusual as the Glazers arrived at Manchester United in 2005. It seemed like Abramovich was the odd man out, a Slavic owner in the English-speaking game that was in the process of globalising. When Tom Hicks and George Gillett took over Liverpool, Randy Lerner moved in on Aston Villa and Stan Kroenke took a stake in Arsenal, Abramovich stood out even more: the Russian’s passion for the game – or desire to launder his reputation – contrasted with the business minds of the US owners who had made fortunes from private equity, real estate and sports marketing and were buying into Premier League clubs not out of love for the game or for their affinity with Liverpool, Birmingham or North London, but because they could smell cash that could be squeezed out of clubs with the potential to reach audiences all around the world.
Football was a commodity that big money could turn into even bigger money. No wonder Mike Ashley got in on the act, taking control of Newcastle United in 2007.
That pattern of business big shots getting involved in top-level football has remained constant. Gillett and Hicks came and went, replaced by John W Henry, blessed with deeper pockets, a better touch with the fans, and a clearer plan both on and off the pitch. Despite the many frustrations at Manchester United too, there can be no question that the Glazers have expanded the club’s reach and pull dramatically, turning the club into a phenomenal cash machine, churning out profits despite disappointing performances on the pitch.
What has changed, however, is the football world’s geographic centre of gravity – which has mirrored that of geopolitics. In 2012, Barack Obama talked about how the United States recognised the need to “pivot” towards Asia. Not only China but also India, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand were growing quickly, expanding horizons and ambitions, and becoming central to the world of today and tomorrow. Throw in Russia, Central Asia, the Gulf and the Middle East and suddenly the world football map looks a lot more surprising. And a lot more cohesive. The countries of the Silk Roads are not just sponsoring football; they are taking it over.
Roman Abramovich was simply a pioneer. Behind him came another oligarch, Alisher Usmanov, whose extensive holdings encompass oil, gas, minerals – and a stake in Arsenal football club. And behind him came a raft of others who have indulged their hobbies to buy teams. Manchester City, of course, owned by the ruling family of fossil fuel rich Abu Dhabi. There are plenty more. Few other than Bournemouth fans would know the name of Maxim Demin, another Russian mogul with a passion for the game. Or Farhad Moshiri, an Everton fan originally from Iran who loved the club so much that he bought a controlling stake from the Kenwrights, long-standing owners, who had stood by the Toffeemen through thick and thin, struggling valiantly to keep up with the pack and guarding the longest unbroken stint in the top division in history – 116 years and counting.
The rise of the east goes on. When the Srivaddhanaprabha family bought Leicester City few thought that a Premier League title was a realistic possibility. They are not the only owners from the east who now own clubs in England, with Malaysia’s Tony Fernandes at QPR, Thailand’s Narin Niruttinanon at Reading, and the al-Hawasi family of Kuwait in control of Nottingham Forest. And then, of course, are the owners from the far end of the Silk Roads: the Chinese.
All of Birmingham’s major clubs now belong to investors from China. Randy Lerner sold out of Aston Villa to Tony Xia as they slipped into the Championship. The fiercely contested derby with Birmingham City this season will see Dr Xia shake hands with Paul Suen Cho Hung, while Wolves were bought by Fosun International in 2016. For now, at least, there will be no chance to rub shoulders at the Hawthorns, after Guochan Lai took control of West Brom in the summer of 2016. West Bromwich Albion, of course, have long been famous in China, following their visit in May 1978. The trip was a landmark moment in Chinese history. The FA had intended for England to play warm-up friendlies there before the Argentina World Cup. When England failed to qualify, the West Brom chairman (and FA council member) Bert Millichip, stepped into the breach. The ‘Friendship Tour’ came just two years after the death of Mao Zedong and was a sign of China’s increased willingness to engage with the outside world. It meant a lot to the Chinese, despite the midfielder John Trewick’s comments when asked his opinion of the Great Wall after the squad had been taken there on a day off. “Very impressive,” he replied, “but once you’ve seen one wall, you’ve seen them all.”
The countries of the Silk Roads loom large in top-flight football, with rumours swirling that Southampton might be the next to be snapped up by Chinese businessmen, whose offer might be too good for the Swiss billionaire Liebherr family to turn down. There has also been talk of Chinese investors buying a stake in Liverpool. It is striking that in the 2016-17 season just a quarter of top-flight clubs have British owners.
It is not just the Premier League where owners from the Silk Roads are making their presence felt. In France, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco are controlled by eye-poppingly rich benefactors from Qatar and Russia respectively. In Italy, AC Milan – for so long the plaything of Silvio Berlusconi – have passed into Chinese ownership, with Yonghong Li completing a protracted buy-out in December 2016; the fierce rivalry between the rossoneri and the nerazzuri of Inter will not just be played out at the San Siro and in Milan itself but also in China, once the Suning corporation seal their take-over.
The trophy-buying of the moguls of the east is of course not restricted to football. After all, Harrods, Weetabix, Sunseeker yachts and Pirelli tyres (and its famous calendar) are just some of the European jewels that have been acquired by the minted elites of China, Russia and the Gulf. Nevertheless, football has proved a particular draw thanks to the combination of international appeal, commercial reach and kudos. It is no coincidence that the greatest trophy football has to offer is heading out to the bridge between east and west, with the World Cup to be held in Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022.
That brings us back to the beginning, to where football itself began – in China. There was a moment when Russian clubs were new entries to the market for marquee signings, with price tags and salaries to match. Players like Eduardo, Bruno Alves, Fernandinho, Axel Witsel, Willian and Samuel Eto’o were once to be found playing in Ukraine and Russia, in the case of the latter two, rather improbably, even in Dagestan on the shores of the Caspian Sea. China was a retirement home for once great players, like Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka, to earn some extra pocket money at the end of their career – a more exotic choice than a move to LA or New York.
But that is now changing too.
This summer, Hulk moved on from Zenit St Petersburg to SIPG in the Chinese Super League for almost £50m, a sign of the massive spending power and the desire to stud local teams with international talent. The Brazilian forward joined the spine of what would make a useful national team now playing in China – including Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Elkeson and Paulinho, all of whom were sold by their previous clubs for more than £10m. Others have joined them, like the Brazilian former Chelsea midfielder Oscar, the Italian former Southampton striker Graziano Pellè and the Côte d’Ivoire winger Gervinho.
In a sign of how the world is moving, domestic sales have been surging too. Some may recognise the names and positions of Jinhao Bi, Ke Sun, Yangyang Jin and Lu Zhang. But most football fans around the world – except those in China – would not. Each commanded transfer fees last season of nearly £10m. That might only be enough to buy 20% of John Stones or Raheem Sterling; but it’s double what Leicester City played for Riyad Mahrez. And it’s about as much as West Brom have ever been able to spend on a player.
The Silk Roads are rising.
Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is published by Bloomsbury