Rowan Simons

Soccer clubs hire international players who earn several times the annual income of China’s soccer clubs. Rowan Simons tries to explain what is driving the latest developments at one of the country’s most popular sports in NPR.


“China has money. It’s quite prepared to pay to see the best matches in the world,” says Rowan Simons, who writes about the sport and also runs soccer training programs for kids in Beijing. “Europe cannot supply China with as many top-class matches as China would like.”

With the deep pockets of their newly moneyed owners, China’s anemic Super League teams have managed to score some of soccer’s biggest stars over the past couple of years — most recently Didier Drogba, formerly of Chelsea. Last weekend, he made his debut for Shanghai Shenhua, which is owned by an eccentric online gaming magnate, Zhu Jun.

Drogba’s salary is unknown, but the excitable Shanghainese media have suggested he could be pocketing as much as $15 million a year, or $300,000 a week.

“What we can say with certainty is that his salary is several times the entire revenue of the club,” says Simons, pointing out that such an economic mismatch would be seen as insanity in Europe.

And Drogba is the second big-ticket player acquired by Shenhua, after French striker Nicolas Anelka. The standard of Chinese soccer is such that it took Anelka just 40 seconds to score his first-ever Shenhua goal. The player nicknamed “The Sulk” has spent much of his stay in China griping about the level of his teammates’ ball skills.

Simons says the millions spent on players like Drogba would be better invested at the grassroots, helping young Chinese players who lack pitches and coaches, instead of on highly paid imports.

“It’s about an ego trip, it’s about politics, it’s about business, it’s not about football,” Simons says.

And politics is ever-present in China, even in the world of soccer. That’s especially been the case in recent years, since the man who will become China’s next president, Xi Jinping, is known to be a huge soccer fan.

“In China, the political factor is massive,” says Simons. “There’s a very strong financial incentive to make friends with politicians, and one way to do that is to spend cash to bring prestige teams over.”

More in NPR.

Rowan Simons is a speakers at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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