FROM a rising powerhouse to a crash-and-burn failure, China’s football boom imploded just as violently as it burst onto the scene.
And the boom and bust could be a cautionary tale for Saudi Arabia – whose own football ambitions can draw some direct lines to China.
Uefa chiefs have urged the kingdom not to make “similar mistakes” which blighted the rise of the sport in the Communist nation.
But it may feel like supporters have heard this all before, with China once having Saudi’s place as the next budding football destination.
At the turn of the 21st century, he deemed football as one of the best tools to propel the country to the top table of the economic world.
He wanted China to play in a World Cup, host the tournament, rank within FIFA’s top 20 teams – and even eventually become a World Cup Champion.
By 2030, the despot wants China’s national men’s team to become one of the highest-ranked teams in Asia.
Beijing also planned to build 50,000 specialist football schools in the next seven years – and get 50million schoolchildren on the pitch to create the next generation of footballers.
The Chinese Super League matched Xi’s bold aspirations – and hastily became the biggest spender in the football world in the winter transfer window of 2016-17.
It turned heads with the astronomical wages being offered to attract some of the world’s top players in a huge bid to become a football superpower.
“Everybody believed that China was the next great thing to happen in football.
“It was an absolute frenzy in the transfer market. Everyone wanted to send their players there because it was guaranteed money.”
One transfer, however, caught the attention more than others.
Carlos Tevez, upon leaving Juventus, was offered a contract by Shanghai Shenhua in 2016 worth £650,000 a week.
Fast forward to last year, and the optimism of 2016 vanished almost as fast as it appeared.
Instead, China was left with a crumbling system as Xi’s football vision seemed to drain money out of China instead of cashing it in.
“Everyone thought it would be a gold mine, but they didn’t plan well,” football agent Cardoso said.
“They were planning absurd things, but in reality, they didn’t have the ability to manage it all.”
More than a decade since Xi announced his dream, the country is now a cemetery of abandoned stadiums and memories of what once was the home to the world’s best-paid players.
The men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – dropping down to the 78th in the FIFA rankings, and the women’s squad failed to break into the top ten.
The Chinese Super League clubs were also folding left, right, and centre.
Guangzhou Evergrande – the most successful team in the China Super League’s history – racked up £240 billion in debt, raising serious questions about the club’s future.
Thanks to poor planning, lack of visibility, the financial crisis, and the pandemic, football practically evaporated from China
Stories emerged of players going unpaid, with some even sent home with their own kit to clean in a bid to avoid any further bills.
Fellow Brazilian Miranda lost out on £7.5million when Chinese club Suning folded.
Without the offer of Champions League football or domestic trophies in the top five European leagues, CSL clubs ended up wildly overpaying on players towards the end of their careers, such as Tevez.
“China grew in a way without much infrastructure, and without proper financial organisation,” Cardoso said.
“The Chinese thought that the country’s entire football market would prevail due to China’s financial condition and by having a strong economic presence globally.
“But that’s not all that guarantees success in football. Proper management and planning are also needed.
“The Chinese secured themselves in the financial condition and forgot to make an organisation on how and where to invest.
Cardoso described China’s rapid rise in the football realm as “hasty”.
“Football in China started to receive a lot of investment, but after a season it stopped due to the lack of visibility,” he said.
“They also thought they were on the right track by signing big contracts with big players.
“They aimed at the present and forgot about the future.
“Xi Jinping’s idea was not bad, but the problem lied with the people who were advising him.
“These people had no knowledge of what it would mean to host a World Cup, let alone win one.
“Thanks to poor planning, lack of visibility, the financial crisis, and the pandemic, football practically evaporated from China.”
Dr Rob Wilson, a football finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University, told Sportsmail: “They were trying to buy 150 years of history.
“What China set out to do was accelerate their position as a world superpower in football so that a Chinese team could potentially win the World Cup.
“What they’ve demonstrated is that it simply isn’t possible to do that.”
In its prime, China went into a stadium construction overdrive as the space needed to build the president’s football schools attracted real estate firms.
Developers snapped up shares in teams in a bid to get access to buying the land made available for development.
Most of them slapped their name on their clubs for a boost in publicity – but shiny new stadiums and big sponsors didn’t equate to visibility and popularity.
Everyone thought it would be a gold mine, but they didn’t plan well
As of 2021, football in China was still being played at largely empty stadiums – and not even the multi-million-pound stars could attract enough supporters to justify the money spent.
In April 2020, Chinese property giant Evergrande broke ground on a £1.4 billion, 100,000-capacity stadium in Guangzhou.
Chairman Xu Jiayin announced that it would become “a world-class new landmark comparable to the Sydney Opera House and Dubai Burj Khalifa, and it is also an important symbol of Chinese football going global”.
But the half-finished stadium and the land it sits on was seized by the local government to be auctioned – leaving Evergrande with billions in debt.
In May last year, builders were at full steam building the Workers’ Stadium – but the site is now a ghost venue of the 2023 Asian Cup as China withdrew as hosts.
Whether or not Xi has failed in his grand plans to become a football superpower remains to be seen as there are still a few years down the road to 2050.
But meanwhile, Cardoso believes Saudi Arabia and the Middle East may not repeat the mistakes made by China.
He thinks its a promising destination for stars – saying the market was already starting to be on the upturn before the signing of Ronaldo from Manchester United last December.
“The Middle Eastern market was already very much heated even before Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Saudi Arabia,” Cardoso revealed.
“They will certainly do well because they have not managed to establish a great connection with football, but know where and how much to put their money in.
“Just look at PSG and Manchester City, for instance. Unlike China, they have strategy as well as financial power.
“I really do think that the Middle East is not even the next, but already the big thing at the moment.”