China – Football’s Next Superpower?

In a time when the Premier League is dominating the transfer market, a new player with enough financial clout to challenge England’s top division is slowly emerging. In this last transfer window, China has started to become a major player in the game with significant moves for players across Europe. During the month of January alone, Chinese clubs spent over $117million on new players signing up the likes of Ivorian midfielder Gervinho from Roma, Colombian forward Fredy Guarin from Inter plus Brazilian midfielder Ramires from Chelsea. They join an already stellar cast in the league including Stephane Mbia, Demba Ba, Diego Tardelli, Asamoah Gyan and Tim Cahill.

Shanghai Shenhua v Beijing Guoan - CSL Chinese Football Association Super League

Former Newcastle and Chelsea forward Demba Ba has settled well into the league (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

That figure has now grow by an additional $45million today with the news that current champions Guangzhou Evergrande have completed the record signing of Atletico Madrid’s Colombian hit man Jackson Martinez. The former Porto striker, who despite being prolific in Portugal has struggled in La Liga passed a medical and will join up with his new teammates later this week at their training camp in Doha. Guangzhou are managed by former Chelsea and Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and currently have several other big name stars in their ranks including former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho and rising Brazilian star Ricardo Goulart. Former AC Milan and Real Madrid star Robinho was also in their ranks but has just been released and is now looking for a new club.

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Jackson Martinez swaps Spain for China in a league record breaking move (Image from Getty)

The league still may be a decade behind their European rivals in terms of quality throughout but the desire to improve the league and the willingness to spend whatever it takes to make that happen is there. Unlike other leagues like in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and now to a lesser extent the US, the focus of a majority of the transfers is to bring players in during their peak years and not after them. All of the major signings in the last window still have a lot to offer in their careers and have time in their side. Guarin and Martinez are 29 whilst Gervinho and Ramires a year younger at 28.  With the window still open for the Chinese League until the end of February, further transfers could go through with the likes of Newcastle’s Cheick Tiote and Atletico’s Fernando Torres top of the list.

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Ramires is another high profile arrival (Image from PA)

What is driving this spending is the explosive demand for soccer in the country. General attendances in the Chinese SuperLeague are growing year over year and advertising dollars are being pumped into the clubs as a result. Added into this the clubs have the backing of the Chinese FA who are encouraging clubs to invest in skillful foreign imports (primarily from Brazil) in the hope that those players will improve the quality of the product with the knock on effect being that it should improve the abilities of Chinese players. That ultimately is the end goal for the Chinese FA who have lofty ambitions – namely to qualify and then win the World Cup in the not so distant future. Its fair to say that currently China has little chance of doing so having failed to qualify for every World Cup bar one (South Korea/Japan 2002) and are struggling to reach the 2018 World cup in Russia. But progress has been made, at least in recognizing that to be successful means that the country has to invest in youth development and help to bring through the next generation of players. Delegates have travelled to Europe in the past to observe how youth academies like the one at Ajax are setup and run with the hopes of replicating that in China.

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The stars of tomorrow – China is investing heavily in youth development in order to be more competitive (Image from Getty)

Growth of the domestic game and improvements in youth development infrastructure can only benefit the Chinese Super League in the long term and with it boost China’s chances of being more competitive on the international stage. With an endless supply of money behind them and a talent pool that is larger than any other country in the world, it’s hard to bet against China from achieving its long-term goals and eventually lifting the World Cup.

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AC Milan Faces Its Biggest Challenge to Date – Accepting Change

AC Milan are no longer competitive with Juventus (Image from Getty)In the broadest sense of the word, change is the act or instance of making or becoming different. In the English language, Change has many meanings but when it comes to football, it usually refers to the need for dramatic switch of direction. It usually occurs after a low point much like AC Milan’s worst league performance in over 17 years. The eighteen times Serie A champions finished in 12th place this past season, sparking calls for a change at the club that will hopefully see them rebound and challenge for honours once more. With Juventus sealing their forth league title in a row and the gap widening between the top three the chasing pack, AC Milan need to introduce change quickly before they become irrelevant. But change is not easy to implement, it has to be systemic across the entire club. The issue with this and with AC Milan in particular is that the key problems lie in the boardroom level where several legacy directors still rule the roost and are unable to see that they are a major factor in Milan’s recent downturn in fortunes.

Inzaghi failed to deliver the change in fortunes that AC Milan needed  (Image from Reuters)

Inzaghi failed to deliver the change in fortunes that AC Milan needed
(Image from Reuters)

From the negative press associated to owner Silivio Berlusconi after hours activities to the archaic thinking of long time vice president Adriano Galliani, AC Milan’s board is rotten to the core and in desperate need of change. But now several green shoots are starting to appear that give hope to Milan’s bewildered fans. After Berlusconi’s troubled private life became the centre of much media and political debate in 2011, he wisely decided to step back from his role with the club and leave it in the hands of his daughter, Barbara Berlusconi. The 30 year old former socialite and philosophy graduate may not have seemed like the revolutionary figure that Milan needed but over the past three years she has proved to be exactly that. With a good business eye and ability to seek out and develop strong commercial relationships, Barbara is slowly bringing AC Milan into the modern game where commercial sponsorship’s and marketing initiatives help to fund the progress of a club rather than a wealthy owner. She has worked tirelessly to increase the awareness of the AC brand around the world in hopes of generating further interest and last month persuaded her father to sell 48% of the club to Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol for a reported €470 million. This sale comes with a promise of investment back into the playing squad with as much as €150 million being touted around the media as the figure Taechaubol is willing to plow into the club. The money will help to complete construction of a new stadium for the club in Portello which will finally see them move away from the now crumbling San Siro.

Barbara Berlusconi has galvanized Milan's commercial arm (Image from Getty)

Barbara Berlusconi has galvanized Milan’s commercial arm
(Image from Getty)

But more importantly that money will be used to refresh the squad which is in a dire state.  AC Milan’s current mix of over rated foreigners and under performing home grown players is simply not working and a drastic change is needed if they are to compete again. That change is already underway with the confirmation that Porto striker Jackson Martinez will be arriving shortly. He could be followed closely by Monaco’s talented defensive midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia with both clubs acknowledging that discussions are taking place. They have also been linked with Dortmund’s Mats Hummels,  Marseille’s Giannelli Imbula and Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov in recent weeks as the rebuilding process picks up steam. This new look squad will however be somewhat surprisingly managed by ex Inter and Serbia boss Sinisa Mihajlovic who took over from Filippo Inzaghi on Monday. Former AC Milan and Italy striker Inzaghi had only been promoted to the first team manager position from his role as youth team manager at the start of the season following a disastrous spell under another former great, Clarence Seedorf. After an impressive spell at the Under 19 level, the hiring of Inzaghi made a lot of sense but he couldn’t transform the fortunes of the first team last season winning only 35% of the games he played.

Jackson Martinez is set to be AC Milan's first summer signing  (Image from Getty)

Jackson Martinez is set to be AC Milan’s first summer signing
(Image from Getty)

His failure sparked conversations about the need for change at the club with the board reacting quickly to try an persuade former manager Carlo Ancelotti to return for a second spell in charge. But Ancelotti rejected the offer stating that he was suffering from burnout after a pressure filled two years at Real Madrid and had decided to take a much needed rest. His refusal put AC Milan into panic mode especially given that Inzaghi was still technically their manager at the time of the approach. Their appointment of Mihajlovic is a bizarre move given his connection with their arch rivals and his previous comments made that he would never work for AC Milan. He did managed to lead a struggling Sampdoria side to 7th place last year after inheriting a side entrenched in a relegation scrap the previous year. But there are those who doubt his success at Sampdoria with journalist Mina Rzouki suggesting that in fact tactical coach Emilio De Leo that was principally responsible for Sampdoria’s turn in fortunes by improving their set piece play and movement off the ball with Mihajlovic playing more of the manager role. AC Milan have yet to confirm who from Sampdoria’s backroom staff will follow Mihajlovic to the San Siro but there is unlikely to be any room for former AC Milan legends to return to the club in a coaching capacity. This is something that the club needs desperately if it is to change for the better. Whilst it is good to let go of the past to move forward, you still need to be able to reflect on where you have comes from and former players like Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi can provide this nostalgic reference to previous Milan successes.

Strange choice - Sinisa Mihajlovic is the new AC Milan boss  (Image from Jonathan Moscrop / LaPresse)

Strange choice – Sinisa Mihajlovic is the new AC Milan boss
(Image from Jonathan Moscrop / LaPresse)

Change is coming to AC Milan but its slow and steady with much work still needing to be done. If they are to be competitive once more they need to change not only the team but the entire club up to the board room level starting with the removal of Adriano Galliani who continues to wreak a foul stench on the club. Mihajlovic may not be the right appointment for the future of the club but he is a good fit for now and should be able to steady the ship and help reform happen. AC Milan will unlikely challenge for honours next season but it wont be long before they are once again especially if they fully embrace change.

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Will Falcao be mentally ready for Brazil?

Race to be ready for Falcao (Image from Getty)Radamel Falcao has always dreamed about playing in the World Cup and looked set to do so after helping Colombia book their place in this summer’s event in Brazil by scoring nine times in qualifying. But after a clumsy foul in the Coupe de France clash against minnows Monts d’Or Azergues, Radamel Falcao’s World Cup dream lies in tatters. An ill timed tackle from behind resulted in anterior cruciate ligament damage to Falcao’s right knee and has ruled him out for the rest of the season. With the recovery time for this type of injury usually between six to nine months, Falcao’s chances of making the 2014 World Cup are slim. Surgery on his knee the day after the match has given him a slim chance of making it, but even then he might not be ready. Falcao faces an uphill battle to be ready both physically and mentally, with the latter likely to be the hardest test of all. The psychological effects of extended time on the sidelines due to injury can take its toll on any player but the fear of a reoccurrence of the injury can be even worse. Without enough time to get in some practice matches before the World Cup kicks off, Falcao could be dropped into the high octane environment that is the group stages.   

Falcao's World Cup dream in tatters following this challenge  (Image from PA)

Falcao’s World Cup dream in tatters following this challenge
(Image from PA)

Played at a hundred miles per hour with every moment made to count, the group stages of a World Cup have historically been injury laden affairs. England fans will remember the 2006 World Cup where they watch star striker Michael Owen collapse during the group stage match against Sweden after rupturing his cruciate ligament and ending his World Cup.  Having been out injured for a spell before the tournament, Owen was rushed back in order to make the squad that went to Germany as he was seen as England’s best forward option by coach Sven Goran Eriksson. He managed to play the first two games in the group stage but in truth Owen was not fully fit. As he fell to the ground in the 1st minute of the final group game against Sweden, Owen knew that it was a direct effect of not being able to rest before the tournament and fully recover. The injury Owen suffered in the 2006 World Cup was not a career ending one but he never fully recovered the form and speed that had made him famous and eventually retired after several disappointing season back in England. The fear for Falcao is that he rushes back to play and suffers a similar fate as Owen, ending what has been an electric career so far.

Falcao could risk long term problems like Owen if he plays in the World Cup  (Image from AFP)

Falcao could risk long term problems like Owen if he plays in the World Cup
(Image from AFP)

If he can make the tournament, then all eyes will fall on head coach José Pékerman and how he uses his star player. With Colombia pitted in a winnable group against Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, they could afford to rest Falcao and slowly introduce him into the tournament, preparing him for the knock out stages instead. But if they struggle in their first match against Greece, Pekerman may be forced to turn to Falcao to ensure qualification. Failure to qualify from the group stage for Colombia is not an option and its passionate fans. Having failed to do so in the last two tournaments they competed in (1994 + 1998), Pekerman is keen to have his team progress and was building his team around Falcao. But following the Monaco frontman’s injury, Pekerman has had to put his faith in others like Teófilo Gutiérrez, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel. Bacca has been in good form since his move to Sevilla in the summer and could be selected to start in Brazil in place of Falcao alongside either Martinez or Gutierrez. Given the choice though, Pekerman would choose Falcao ahead of all others as he recognizes that he is without question the best striker in the world right now.

Could Bacca replace Falcao?  (Image from Getty)

Could Bacca replace Falcao?
(Image from Getty)

Regardless of where you come from or which country you will be supporting at the World Cup, everyone is hoping that Falcao can recover in time to participate. After all, the World Cup should be about the world’s best teams and in them the world’s greatest players. With Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wales Gareth Bale already missing out due to their respective countries failing to qualify, fans will be hoping Falcao won’t be added to this list too.

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