Sports: Turks discover Chinese soccer market

ISTANBUL–China is by far the biggest spender in the January transfer window of world soccer. Chinese Super League clubs have outspent the European (and Latin American) clubs by signing some of the crème-de-la-crème players.

The manager of the English club Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, is reported to have said that the Chinese “have the financial power to move the whole league of Europe to China” while Thiago Scuro, director of the Brazilian club Cruzeiro, told the international media: “We cannot fight this, as it is economics, not football.”

They are both frightfully right. China has the economic might, the Chinese people love soccer, and the Chinese government appears to have the political motivation to improve the country’s soft power by attracting the world’s most adored players to the country. Europeans and Latin Americans might seem worried against the economic power of Chinese soccer clubs. But at the same time, most of the well-known clubs from these countries are also benefiting from the prospering of the Chinese soccer market, through merchandise sales, exhibition games, broadcasting rights and so on.

One of the countries of Europe (i.e. one of the member countries of Europe’s top soccer body UEFA) has recently discovered what China is going to mean for global soccer — and that country is Turkey.

Interest in Asia lagged

Turkish soccer’s interest in East Asia in general began 2002. But for a while it has amounted to nothing more than a half-baked enterprise. Winning the third place in the World Cup of 2002, which took place in Japan and South Korea, helped Turkey’s star players to make a lot of fans in these countries.

The bronze medal game, which the Turks won 3:2 against South Korea in Daegu marked the peak of sympathy for Turkey’s players among the host audience despite the defeat of their own team. This event was followed by a number of signings over the next years.

The star player of 2002’s third place winner, İlhan Mansız, was signed by Japan’s Vissel Kobe amidst great fanfare, but had to leave the club after a few matches due to injury. Turkey’s coach Şenol Güneş worked for two years at FC Seoul, and was much loved by the fans.

However, this interest could not be turned into a larger enterprise through which Turkish soccer could be linked to East Asia, due to the lack of planned and systematized marketing and promotion work. In those years a small number of Turkish players, of relatively lower celebrity status compared with Mansız and Güneş, went to China, however their stay there was short lived — mainly due to failure to adapt.

China stirred market interest

Ersan Gülüm

Ersan Gülüm

Now, with the Chinese soccer market becoming more sizeable and mature compared with the early 2000s, Turks have a renewed interest in China, and this interest is generously reciprocated by China’s clubs.

During the January transfer window, the signing of Australian-born Turkish player Ersan Gülüm from Beşiktaş JK to Hebei China Fortune was finalized for a sum of 7 million euros. Moreover, on February 5, the striker of Galatasaray SK and the Turkish national team, a true Turkish celebrity, Burak Yılmaz, was announced to have agreed to join Beijing Guoan for a sum of 8 million euros.

From a Turkish perspective, these players hoped to open a new channel into a lucrative market. If Gülüm and Yılmaz can make it in China, there will be increasing interest for Turkish soccer among Chinese fans, and these will mean new supporters, and hence new sources of income through exhibition games, merchandise sale and broadcasting rights fro Turkey’s major clubs.

Big names like Galatasaray, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Trabzonspor are well known in Europe and it only takes the personal linkage that Gülüm and Yılmaz can establish vis-à-vis the fans for these clubs to enjoy following in china and the rest of East Asia as well. And Turkish clubs have already begun to prepare for this stage. Beşiktaş JK has recently announced that it is considering having its summer training camp this year in China, and a Chinese version of the club’s web site will be available very soon. Expect the other big clubs to follow suit.

China is the world’s economic giant, and since professional soccer has much to do with economic power, one should expect China to be under the spotlight of global soccer very soon. All the clubs that compete internationally including Turkish ones have to add the China factor in their work plans and budgets.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies graduate program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and a senior research associate at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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