“When I was in China, people were not even allowed to talk to a foreigner,” Arlt says. “If I asked someone, ‘Where is the railway station?’ he would have to go and report that.”
After one year — which Blohm nostalgically calls the “the most important year in my life” — the Swede left China. “Mentally, I was really tired,” he says.
Certainly, the idea that Blohm would trade his Swedish passport for a Chinese one was out of the question.
A point of national pride
By the summer of 2008, Beijing was dropping an astonishing $40 billion on the most expensive Olympic Games ever held. Its athletes won 51 gold medals at the Games, the most of any nation in the competition. And China was now the world’s third-largest economy
, behind Japan and the United States.
The message being sent to the world was clear: with a soaring economy and growing political and cultural clout, China itself was now in the super league. But none of that changed the fact it still struggled at soccer.
China hasn’t been back to the World Cup since its 2002 tournament debut. And by July 2009 its team ranked 108th worldwide, according to FIFA. Furthermore, match-fixing and corruption were considered so rife that an ethics committee was founded to clean up the game.
As vice president in 2011, Chinese President Xi Jinping made getting better at the beautiful game a national goal
. As a child, Xi had played football
at school. Now he wanted the entire nation to fall in love with the sport.
Businessmen including Alibaba’s Jack Ma
were encouraged to invest billions in the CSL, the all-male, 16-side championship. Wang Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group (DWG) has also poured hundreds
of millions of dollars
into the sport. Soccer academies and pitches were planned across the sprawling nation, and an ambitious scheme to hire thousands of foreign coaches offered everyone from professions to gap-year students
financial incentives to teach young Chinese how to score.
As the cash came, so did the foreign talent — albeit, mostly fading stars or youngsters with no chance at the big time in their native leagues.
In 2012, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba signed with Shanghai Shenhua — while this year, Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini moved to Shandong Luneng. Transfer fees are never announced officially, but Fellaini is rumored to have been bought for about $13 million
That number was eclipsed by reports this week that Welsh star Gareth Bale was leaving Real Madrid
for a three-year deal with Chinese club Jiangsu Suning that would see him earn $1.2 million a week, before the Spanish side blocked the deal. Foreign players are not subject to the 10 million RMB ($1.45 million) salary cap that was recently imposed on domestic players
, to prevent clubs from running up huge debts.
For Xi, however, the goal was not to attract foreign stars. It was to make Chinese ones.
As a result, CSL sides are only permitted to register four foreign players — and can only pay three at once — as well as one from a Chinese territory, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macao. All CSL teams have maxed out that quota.
“That’s basically to ensure that Chinese players can get playing time,” said Wilson, the expert on Chinese football.
Some sides have used the Chinese territory rule to get more non-Chinese players on their books. Nigeria-born Alex Akande, for example, lived in Hong Kong long enough to naturalize there and now plays for Dalian as its one allotted player from the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Foreign goalkeepers, however, have been outright banned from the league since 2001. And in 2017, clubs were hit with a 100% tax, also designed to stem capital flight, on players who cost more than 45 million RMB
($7 million), that levy going into a grassroots development fund for Chinese talent.
But Wilson says that the millions of dollars in investment hasn’t been able to make up for one crucial factor: China doesn’t have a football culture.
“I think they’re just not into football,” he says. “Nobody will tell you that. For a long time, even I was that person who was an advocate, saying: ‘Yeah there’s a lot of potential here, it’s a sleeping giant and it’s a massive goldmine waiting to be discovered.'”
Not a single Super League match sold out
in this 2019 season, with stadium capacity averaging at 51% full. Most of the CSL teams make a loss
Manchester United, on the other hand, reported record revenues of £590 million
($730 million) for the year ending June 2018.