But McNeil’s move was in fact perfectly illustrative of how China is intent on becoming a footballing destination for all. It’s not just the big names, such as Oscar or Tevez, being targeted, but players at a lower level too. They want it all, former Hibernian goalkeepers and all.
That is perhaps the greatest misconception about China’s play for global domination, that it’s only the very biggest names that interest them. That their blueprint only amounts to the creation of a league-wide Harlem Globetrotters of football.
Their strategy is far more comprehensive than that. And so McNeil, who has joined Guangzhou R&F as a goalkeeping coach, probably won’t be the last from Scotland to be lured there.
“They are a very proud nation and they want to be the best at everything, no matter what they do,” explains Ryan McGowan, the former Hearts and Dundee United defender who currently plays for Chinese club Henan Jianye. “Look at the Olympics – they tend to top everything in the sporting world, so they’re desperate to improve in football as well.”
Indeed, that is what makes the Chinese Super League such a formidable prospect. When China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics was successful, the country committed billions to topping the medal table (on top of the $40 billion invested in the construction of stadiums, venues and infrastructure). And that’s exactly what they did, blitzing the United States out of top spot for the first time since 1992. When China sets its mind to something, it tends to achieve its goal.
Scottish football, just like the rest of the European game, must adapt to the new normal which puts China near the top of the food chain. That might be easier for Scotland to do, given that the country has been something of a bottom-feeder in footballing terms for a generation or two now, but despite the threat of losing our best players to yet another country with more money and more clout, McGowan underlines how it should be considered a two-way street and not just one-way traffic.
“I remember one time they were asking me about the Scottish league and then Osman Sow came over and joined my team, so they definitely know about Scotland and Scottish football,” the Australian says. “They know about the best players and with the money they have an interest in them. But at the same time Scottish players should be looking over to China, looking at how well Osman has done since making the move over there. There are opportunities for Scottish players.”
From an off-the-field perspective as well, McGowan believes Scottish football should view China as an opportunity rather than a threat. “They love their European football, they all have a European team that they support as well as a Chinese team, so it would be hugely beneficial for Scottish clubs to get their feelers in there and get into that market,” he says. “I’m a football fan and if I’m flicking through the channels and there’s a game on nine times out of ten I will end up watching it, and it’s the same for a lot of people in China.
“Scottish football should look to break into that. It’s a huge market, there’s billions of people that live in China, so if you can get two or three per cent that switch on and watch one of your games it’s probably the same as if everyone in Scotland watched it.”
It might take a while for the football fraternity to come around to this way of thinking, though. Going on the current narrative, players making the move to China are heading there for one thing and one thing only – money. “I don’t think Zlatan Ibrahimovic went to Man Utd to live in Manchester,” says McGowan. “For the last 15 years they have raided all the other markets, they’ve raided Scotland, while Celtic and Rangers have raided all the other Scottish teams, so they’re a little bit put out there’s now a bigger country that can pull these players with more money.”
Not that China’s money is solely going into the transfer of big-name players. As McGowan outlines, the country is investing in the future of its young players perhaps like no other on earth. “They’re not bringing these huge signings to train at the local gym,” he explains. “They have all the facilities there for these players. They are trying to create a world-class environment so they can continue to attract these world-class players, and then create their own homegrown superstars. That might take a generation or two, but it’ll happen.”
Of course, much of what is assumed about the Chinese Super League is grounded in at least a degree of reality. It’s true that the division, for all its government-subsidised wealth, remains somewhat primitive. The CSL’s average attendance charts at just 26,000 despite the country’s population of 1.3 billion. That figure is growing, but Chinese clubs still find themselves struggling for space in a footballing market already saturated by Premier League and European clubs.
Additionally, Chinese teams are grossly unbalanced. With CSL sides permitted to register just three foreign players to their squad, global superstars – such as Oscar, Tevez, Jackson Martinez and maybe soon Diego Costa – are flanked by team-mates of a much lower calibre. “You always have to be especially wary of one player who can do something extraordinary and change the game with a moment of brilliance,” says McGowan. “That’s a bit different to playing in Scotland.”
Then there’s questions over the sustainability of it all. China might be investing in the future of its young players as well as splurging big money on big names in the transfer market, but for how long can such spending really last? A recently mooted government-implemented salary cap could curb the kind of spending that saw Tevez – who turns 33 next month and is well into the twilight of his career – become the highest paid football player in history last month.
But even if that comes to pass, China has tilted the football landscape. It is now a bona fide destination for the sport’s great and good, with more superstars likely to make the move there in the coming years. This the new normal.
China is not some footballing utopia, but with so much going for the country right now maybe we shouldn’t be so snobby over what it can offer as a football nation.
McNeil, for instance, probably isn’t going over there for the money. McGowan says he didn’t go there for the money either. There’s more to it than that. While the Premier League now views China as a threat, Scottish football is in a better place to see it as an opportunity.