Big spending China threatens J-League dominance

JOHN DUERDEN Associated Press Published:

SINGAPORE (AP) -- The Chinese Super League has shaken off corruption scandals and is spending big on international stars sparking debate as to how much ground it has made up on a Japanese J-League coping with a continuing exodus of young talent.

A growing number of the J-League's best players are heading to European teams. 2012 Olympic star Kensuke Nagai left Nagoya Grampus earlier in January to join Standard Liege of Belgium, while Genki Omae became the 11th Japanese player to join Germany's top tier, shifting to Fortuna Dusseldorf from Shimizu S-Pulse.

Shimizu coach Afshin Ghotbi told Associated Press he would like to see more done to ensure talent remains longer, or at least teams receive transfer fees of sufficient size to allow investment in developing talent.

"J-League clubs have to do a better job in keeping players in Japan by signing longer term contracts and renewing them prior to their final year," said Ghotbi who added that the rise of Chinese football is good for Japan.

"Due to the number and quality of the young Japanese players, the J-League has been able to sustain its quality, but unless measures are taken, at some point we will see a decline in the quality and popularity of the league."

The booming Chinese league has overtaken the J-League in terms of average attendance, partly due to major investment in overseas talent.

Guangzhou Evergrande, Guangzhou R&F, Shanghai Shenhua and Dalian Aerbin are also in the process of signing foreign players of higher quality than their Japanese counterparts.

Speculation as to whether Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka will spend another season with Shanghai Shenhua has overshadowed some interesting purchases by Chinese clubs.

Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup, and now coach of Guangzhou Evergrande, splashed out $7.4 million in December on Brazil's Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso to add to a squad that reached the last eight of the 2012 Asian Champions League.

Guangzhou also won a second successive Chinese championship with a squad of Chinese national team players and highly-rated and highly-paid imports such as Dario Conca and Lucas Barrios.

Dalian Aerbin signed French international Guillaume Hoarau from Paris Saint Germain. At 28, Hourau is no veteran approaching the end of his career, but a talented player at the peak of his career.

U.S.-born Tom Byer played in Japan in the forerunner to the J-League and since retiring has played an influential role in the country's highly-rated youth development system. He is now Head Technical Consultant to the Chinese School Football Program administered by the Ministry of Education.

"China is surely signing bigger marquee players than the J. League," Bayer said. "It seems like the '90s in Japan when every club had to have one or two stars. Time will tell if the Chinese Super League will get it right with the massive investment that some clubs are making."

The departure of talent from Japan has its positives according to Byer, who believes that it has made the J-League more competitive. 2008 Asian Champion Gamba Osaka was relegated in 2012 while seven-time champion Kashima Antlers has fallen on lean times leaving relatively unfashionable teams such as Kashiwa Reysol, Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima to challenge for titles.

Philippe Troussier, coach of the Japan national team from 1998 to 2002 who is now plying his trade in China, acknowledges that while the departure of talented players can weaken the J-League in the short-term, it will be of long-term benefit to Japan.

"There are in Japan a high number of talented players for the future and the fact that some of them go to overseas can give to the local players more opportunities to play," the Frenchman said.

When Shinji Kagawa, now of Manchester United, left Cerezo Osaka in 2010 to join Borussia Dortmund, Hiroshi Kiyotake cemented his place in the team's starting lineup. So impressive was the midfielder that he broke into the Japan national team and earned a move to FC Nuremberg in the Bundesliga.

"We have many young players challenging overseas, especially in Europe. Even though many talented players move, we still have a lot of promising young players in the J-League and they grow through actual opportunities to play," the J-League's head of public relations, Kazayuki Hagiwara, said. "Players coming back share their unique experience. In the medium and long term, this virtuous cycle helps Japanese football develop."

And far from being a threat to Japan, Hagiwara also claims that the rise of China is a positive.

"Developing football in Asia, including China, and improving Asian football's position in the world is very important for the J-League."

According to the well-traveled Troussier, China still has some way to go.

"We can compare the current Chinese policies with Japanese policies 20 years ago," he said. "Chinese football looks very attractive at the moment with so many talented foreign players and coaches but it still needs a long time to reach a high football standard."