What the Neymar transfer tells us about Football in China

What the Neymar transfer tells us about Football in China


Paris Saint-Germain signed Brazilian forward Neymar for a world record fee of 222 million euros from FC Barcelona. The football public went crazy and some people accused Neymar on social media of being immoral. Most people, however, forget that the greatest value of football is not money; it is attention.

Imagine if football would not receive worldwide attention, as it is nowadays. Do you believe that so many entrepreneurs would be willing to invest their money in football, where a large number of clubs generate no or very low financial returns compared to other industries? Probably there would be some benefactors who voluntarily sponsor their home teams. But would these enormous sums of money be spent on sponsorship and TV rights if football would not receive the attention of so many people? I don’t think so.

The irony of the Neymar transfer is that most people who are now terribly upset and angry about it will most likely turn on the TV when Neymar plays against his former colleagues in the Champion League.

Many people are unaware that football is, in fact, a made-up game that is invested with so much meaning that it becomes reality. It involves elaborate rituals, and the results of the competitions have substantial impact on the social, economic and political standing of both players and spectators. Without the global attention, the social, commercial and political impact of football would probably not be worth mentioning. In fact, football would have no effect at all if we did not believe it had an effect. But it has an enormous impact! This is the reason why football is “more than a game”.

Football is a “religion” that people usually join very early in life. Of course, there are people who convert only at advanced age from other sports to football, but according to a study of FREE (Football Research in Enlarged Europe) about 89 per cent of respondents (over 8,000 European football fans) stated in a survey that they started to be interested in playing and watching football before they were 12 years old. This means that football socialisation takes place at a very young age.

In 2015, China’s Ministry of Education included football on the physical education syllabus in all primary and secondary schools and made football a compulsory part of the national school curriculum. In contrast to many European countries, youth football should be developed mainly in schools and not in clubs. The basic idea behind these efforts is to popularise football in the Chinese public. Thus, a special programme called Campus Football should “develop excellent grassroots to provide a growth path from social football to professional football”.

But it’s not the party, it’s the people who really matter. The Chinese population plays a decisive role in the development of national football. A comprehensive development of national football in China cannot be performed without the voluntary decision of the Chinese public to pay attention to and participate in football-related activities. This is the power of attention. It is all the more surprising that the role of football communities are often underestimated in the public debates not only on Chinese football.

Ilker Gündogan

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