The death of transfer rumours and China's love of Germany

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: July 5, 2017

We are now about halfway through Chinese football’s transfer window and, entirely predictably, Tianjin Quanjian (TQ) has emerged as the Chinese Super League club most likely to sign an expensive, high-profile player from a big European club. Last year, super-agent Jorge Mendes’ appearance in China alongside club chairman Shu Yuhui, holding a shirt with Ronaldo’s name printed on it, fuelled speculation that the Portuguese player would soon be heading east. He didn’t.

This year, TQ has again set the early transfer window pace with rumours having circulated that the club would sign Frenchman Anthony Modeste from Germany’s FC Koln. As with most TQ rumours, the transfer now seems to have fallen by the wayside only to be replaced by an even more fanciful story. Onwards and upwards seems to be the club motto, at least when it comes to transfer rumours; next-up, Borussia Dourtmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who, it has been reported, will be bought for £70 million and paid £500,000-a-week. Keep watching this one, although it probably won’t happen.

Thank goodness, however, for TQ because, without them, this would otherwise be one of the most subdued transfer windows in China for two years. Indeed, in recent windows, it has been rumoured that everyone from Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney to FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi would be imminently pitching-up somewhere in the Middle Kingdom to play for a club that most of the world has never heard of before.

Such rumours are always very interesting as they effectively constitute information created to fill gaps where there is an absence of insight or understanding. They are can also be viewed as improvised news linked to matters of collective interest; whilst they often help in instilling a sense of belief when reliable information is otherwise unavailable. Interesting then that the ‘Diego Costa to TC’ rumour now seems to have gone away, only to be replaced by those pertaining to Aubameyang and Modeste stories.

One reason why the Chinese transfer window has fallen relatively silent is that, this time round, we do have reliable information which means that we do not have to improvise in identifying what is known. In simple terms, the Chinese state has spoken and the market for overseas player signings has consequently moderated. The introduction of a 3+1 player transfer rule in January, and the more recent imposition of a 100% player tax, have helped clarify how the government thinks football clubs should (and should not) go about their business.

Hence, this is the first post-intervention transfer window, and the fact that Modeste has thus far come closest to being the biggest European signing should serve as a salutary reminder for football, sport and business in general that, when the Chinese government speaks, one must listen and respond. As events unfold over the next couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see if Aubameyang does head to TC. If, as reported, the transfer fee is £70 million then the Chinese club will have to pay £140 million for him (the additional £70 million consisting of the 100% tax, which would have to be paid into a domestic player development fund).

One question is: would this constitute a new transfer fee world record? Perhaps a more important question though might be: what will President Xi think? With company officials from inside other football investors, such as Wanda and Fosun, now being investigated by the state for matters of financial irregularity, if the Aubameyang deal does go ahead it might be advisable for Shu Yuhui to keep looking over his shoulder during the coming months.

Yet it is not just the cocktail of supressed transfer rumours and the potential for unpredictable market intervention by the state that are characteristics of this transfer window. There are other features too, which reveal something about the current, and changing, nature of Chinese football. Most notably, China seems to have developed a predisposition towards German football.

Up until now, players moving there have tended to be South Americans who have headed east via a stint playing in one of Europe’s biggest leagues. Meanwhile, managers have been an eclectic bunch, most notably characterised by a Chinese penchant for World Cup winners (think Scolari, Lippi and Capello). However, rumours about Modeste and Aubameyang have surfaced at the same time as Beijing Guoan have appointed former Bayer Leverkusen head coach, Roger Schmidt. Unsubstantiated rumours also suggest that German national team’s coach, Joachim Löw is also on China’s radar.

This does not seem to be a coincidence either. Bayern Munich has topped a recent list of the most popular football clubs on Chinese social media, whilst the Bundesliga giants have this year also signed a partnership agreement with Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading higher education institutions. It has also just been announced within the last couple of weeks that China’s under-20 national team will be permitted to play games in the fourth-tier of German football.

This collaboration, aimed at helping young Chinese players to develop in a European setting, marks an increasingly close (football) relationship between Beijing and Berlin. This has been most potently symbolised in the last couple months by the staging of the first Chinese-German Football Summit, which followed the signing last November of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries’ respective football associations.

These moves should be no surprise, as China’s 2016 Football Reform Plan made specific reference to Germany and its successes as a role model for the development of its own football. Yet the ‘German way’ of doing business is also something China finds appealing, not least in terms of the collaborative culture that characterises it. This is not dissimilar to the ‘Chinese way’ of doing business, hence there seems to be a natural alignment, and associated level of trust, between the business cultures of both countries. This stands in stark contrast to the more transactional, more overtly commercial approaches adopted by, for example, English football.

Whether Modeste or Aubameyang ultimately end-up in China is a moot point. But once this transfer window closes and the rumours subside (at least until next January when it opens again), Germany will still be in China playing the kind of off-field leading role that many of us normally expect from the country on-the-field.

About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is owner and editor of The Scorecard. He is Professor of Sports Enterprise and Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business at Salford University Manchester in the UK. Simon is also a co-director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in the UK. Further details of his activities can be found here