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Sport

China’s Football Gold Rush

Chris Steele-Perkins explores the growth of football culture in China

Chris Steele-Perkins

Chris Steele-Perkins The girls disabled (deaf) football team, known as the Dream of Dragons. Dragons sounds the same as deaf in Chinese. They are from the Zhang Jiang special education school, which has more than 580 d (...)

In January 2017 the press surrounding the transfer window for many football leagues is, as it has been for decades now, dominated by the huge figures players are bought for, as they ping pong from club to club, weighing up strategic career direction and professional fulfilment with the promise of large amounts of cash. However, a relative newcomer to the international market has sparked the most debate in the UK: China, whose clubs have been snapping up some of the world’s best players with seemingly endless amounts of cash. In December, Chelsea’s midfielder Oscar signed to join Shanghai SIPG for an estimated £60m; Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel also announced he’s leaving Chelsea and joining Tianjin TEDA FC in China for a reported £140,000 a week; and former Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez is joining Shanghai Shenhua for a reported £610,000 a week, making him the highest paid player in the world.

Chris Steele-Perkins China. Guangzhou. 2016. Evergrande Football Academy School. A private fee paying school and the largest football academy in the world. It has 2,800 pupils. Morning training session. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins China. Guangzhou. 2016. Evergrande Football Academy School. A private fee paying school and the largest football academy in the world. It has 2,800 pupils. Morning training session. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins A disabled team for people suffering from muscular and coordination problems practice at Cao Yang No.2 High School. Shanghai, China. 2016. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins The Te Lian Bian experimental kindergarden. Of the 200 children who attend, about 30 play football. They are sponsored by a company called In Sport who provide equipment and trained football coache (...)

The so-called ‘gold rush’ is led from the highest level in China; President Xi Jinping – a huge football fan, who hopes his country will one day host the World Cup – is determined to join the international major players, pouring funds into initiating football projects. His plan calls for 50,000 schools to have a strong emphasis on soccer by 2025 (compared to 5,000 in 2015). However, by mid January, 2017, China’s spending spree in England was tempered with the announcement that the Chinese Super League clubs will only be allowed to have three non-Chinese players per game in their next season.

Chris Steele-Perkins China. Guangzhou. 2016. The Top Team, enthusastic amateur football players who formed 12 years ago from a group of friends and colleagues, mainly from the IT profession. Thay meet every Saturday (...)

While critics in the UK have expressed the opinion that China’s unrivalled financial ability to lure players is unfair, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said that, “the rest of Europe thinks the same thing about England.” Indeed, New York Times journalist Rory Smith pointed out in a BBC radio interview that “there is an argument to say that the Chinese Super League are doing nothing that the Premier League weren’t doing twenty years ago,” in seeking to build teams with players that had previously been massively successful elsewhere in the world, and cited Italian former footballer Gianfranco Zola, who moved to Chelsea in 1996 for £4.5m after a successful career in Italy, as an example of just that.

Chris Steele-Perkins China. Guangzhou. 2016. The Top Team, enthusastic amateur football players who formed 12 years ago from a group of friends and colleagues, mainly from the IT profession. Thay meet every Saturday (...)
Chris Steele-Perkins Classrooms at the Evergrande Football Academy school. Evergrande is a private fee paying school and the largest football academy in the world. It has 2,800 pupils. Guangzhou, China. 2016. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos

Magnum’s Chris Steele-Perkins, who has a personal interest in documenting the culture that surrounds football, travelled to China in 2016 to explore the growth in followers of the sport, looking at various aspects of grass-roots football, meeting fans and visiting the Evergrande football academy. The Evergrande Football School in Qingyuan, Guangdon – the largest of its kind in the world – is a private school that boasts state-of-the art football training facilities, offering training in football alongside usual, more academic subjects.

Chris Steele-Perkins The Ebbe Sands Soccer Academy was set up by the Danish star player, Ebbe Sands, in Shanghai in 2012. Here at the British International School in Puxi he, and his foreign coaches, train pupils under (...)
Chris Steele-Perkins Shanghai Shenhua (Greenland) play Beijing. After the match Nigerian star player Obafemi Martins throws his shirt to the supporters. Shanghai, China. 2016. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos

"I was very intrigued by the combination of football and China and the idea that they don’t have a national sport"

- Chris Steele-Perkins
Chris Steele-Perkins SIPG playing at the SIPG Stadium against Shandong Luneng. They beat them 4-1. Shanghai, China. October 22, 2016. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos

“I was very intrigued by the combination of football and China and the idea that they don’t have a national sport,” says Chris Steele-Perkins. “They have sports that they’re good at, but they’re individual sports like gymnastics or table tennis or something like that, rather than a team sport. There seems to be a space in China which in unoccupied and football could be it. I was also interested in the idea that they are trying to buy their way into football and what that looked like.”

Chris Steele-Perkins Xi Mingyuan (35), a supporter and fan of the Super League team Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, at home where he keeps a large collection of signed and worn football shirts and memorabilia. He works as (...)

At around $5,800 (China’s per capita GDP is $6,800), Evergrande is not accessible to most children in China. “I met pupils who were the kids of foreign diplomats and things like that,” says Steele-Perkins. “They just thought it was cool to have their kids in the school.” Outside of the expensive bubble of Evergrande, access to football pitches is less commonplace. “I spoke to a number of people who are involved in the game, including football fans, and the feeling was that there weren’t enough infrastructural things where you can actually go and play without a three-hour journey in one direction and a three hour journey home again afterwards.” It’s something that President Xi is hoping to address with plans to grow the number of soccer fields across the country from under 11,000 to over 70,000 by the end of 2020.

Chris Steele-Perkins At the old Expo site a few fans of the Shanghai SIPG Super League team watch a light show celebrating the club and football in general. Shanghai, China. 2016. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins The Dream of Dragon’s coach, Zhang Jiang, gives a player a leg massage. He is a teacher at the Zhang Jiang special education school and an advocate for the team, which the school Principal opposes. (...)

“There isn’t that background culture of football, of kids kicking balls around in backstreets against the neighbor’s wall,” says Steele-Perkins. Without a history of football culture and rites like “going down the pitch with your dad on a Sunday afternoon and shouting out from the sidelines and getting rained on” he wanted to see how they have embedded themselves into football culture. His portraits of fans at home show them surrounded by huge collections of pristine and signed memorabilia, suggesting that their passion for the game, like their prime minster’s, manifests in their spending.

Looking ahead, the photographer believes China’s investment may start to show results in 10-15 years – a similar amount of time soccer took to really embed in American culture when English footballers like David Beckham first began to formally visit in the 90s. “It’s hard to know how it will pan out,” he says, “but the Chinese do these ten-year plans and they often are quite successful at them. I have tried to look at the grass-roots and the beginnings of a possible revolution in the football world.”

Chris Steele-Perkins China. Gonghe County, near Ching Hai Lake (Blue Sea) . Buddhist Monastery La Mao Zhou. Young monks play football. This work was carried out with the support of Prospect Foundation. (Yuan Ji Shi) © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos