A lot of prominent European football clubs are currently in China. It’s summer break. The competitions in the European leagues have not yet started and the teams are preparing intensively for the coming season.
The weather is usually at this time of the year very hot and sticky in areas like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin and the time difference is an extra burden, especially for professional players. There is also the fact that European teams mainly play friendlies against each other, since the Chinese teams are in the middle of the season.
The question arises: Why are so many teams taking on the hardships to travel to China during their pre-season preparation?
China is the second largest economy in the world, it has now more than 100 cities of over 1 million residents, and after President Xi Jinping came into office in November 2012, three comprehensive reform programmes to develop football and sports in general in China have been issued. It is therefore only logical that actors of European football consider China first and foremost one of the most promising markets for their own business expansion.
Since 2015, the International Champions Cup (ICC) has been organising friendlies between European football clubs in China. LeTV, one of China’s largest online video companies, teamed up with RSE Ventures, Relevent Sports and Catalyst Media Group to bring ICC to China. According to ICC website, the corporation “is dedicated to full-dimensional premium European football experience for Chinese fans. As a world’s leading pre-season football tournament, ICC China brings along the top European football culture and football lifestyle in China”.
Is it really about bringing European football culture and football lifestyle to China? There is subsequently a more important question: what do they mean with “European football culture” and “football lifestyle”? And: can we even speak of European football clubs when three of the six participating teams are partly (Olympique Lyonnais, Inter Milan) or completely (AC Milan) owned by Chinese investors?
In the field of social sciences it is widely accepted that sport is a powerful facilitator, provider and resource for an array of identities. However, this does not mean that sport should be understood as some kind of self-sufficient social institutions or subsystem, but rather as a constitutive element of everyday life and popular culture, within particular social and historical settings. Football, as one of the most popular mass sports in the world, has a great social, cultural and political impact in (re-)producing collective identities on all levels. The ritualised sporting events became an expression of their imagined communities.
In June 2016, the Suning Holdings Group, one of China’s largest retail business enterprises with more than 1,600 stores, spend €270 million (US$ 307 million) to buy a majority stake of 68.55 percent in European football club Inter Milan. The Suning Holdings Group is based in Nanjing, where the next ICC game will take place on Monday: Inter Milan vs Olympique Lyonnais. For this reason it will probably be a “home game” for Inter.