Argentine striker, Carlos Tevez (left), in his first training session with his new teammates, including Obafemi Martins (second left), at Shanghai Shenhua… last week. PHOTO: AFP.
John Obi Mikel’s recent transfer to Tianjin Teda in the Chinese League has opened a new vista in the movement of Nigerian players to foreign clubs. In this transfer window, which ends tomorrow, the Chinese Super League has spent more money than all the European leagues combined. The figure keeps soaring. Aside from bringing talented players to the Super League, Chinese investment funds are targeting stakes in European clubs, from Manchester City to Atlético Madrid and Slavia Prague, while media and technology companies pour cash into building a sports economy and strengthening a domestic league until recently riddled with corruption and controversy. Fielding questions from some reporters at the weekend, Content Marketing Manager, Startimes, Qasim Elegbede, whose outfit has the franchise for broadcasting the league in Nigeria, explains what the company is doing to make the league beneficial to Nigerians. Excerpts:
At the last count, there were about seven prominent Nigerians in the Chinese Super League, including Chinedu Obasi, who joined the train last week. Your outfit, Startimes, is one of the major players in the digital broadcast of the league; so, what are you doing to ensure that the league is beneficial to Nigerians?
One of our strategies to key into the league is the partnership, which gives Startimes the franchise to broadcast matches of the league to Nigerians.
Startimes is in the deal to bring to Nigerians events on and off the field in the league.
As you know, Mikel Obi and Anthony Ujah, among others, are in the Chinese League and the only way Nigerians, including national team coaches, can see them in action is by watching games of the league. This is one of the things the partnership offers Nigerians.
Again, Mikel and the others are there to make money because they cannot play football forever. Anybody that wants to see them in action will do that through Startimes, which subscription costs only N1, 200 per month.
We have a marketing plan that will offer Nigerians the opportunity to go to China to watch some of the matches on the bill of Startimes. We did it with the Bundesliga when we took some Nigerians to watch German league games two years ago and now many football fans identify with the league.
Ultimately, when the Chinese get it right, the Super League will be one of the biggest in the world and Nigeria will benefit from it since we are with them from the beginning.
There is the argument by some experts that the Chinese League will affect the standard of the foreign players because of the quality of the games. What this means is that even when the players earn big money, their standard will go down such that they may no longer compete on the same level with their Europe-based counterparts?
No. I disagree with that. The Chinese league will open the players to a different experience from what they were used to. I will give you an example. At the 2000 African Nations Cup co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana, Patrick Mboma was Cameroun’s top striker and he was then playing in the obscure Japanese League. He led Cameroun to win the title and even returned to Europe to end his career. So, it is not a matter of where you play; rather it will enrich the player’s experience.
Somebody like Mikel, who was not playing regularly in Chelsea, will have the opportunity to play more games than some of his contemporaries elsewhere and so he will be fit at all times.
Some people have also said that the Chinese League will fade quickly just like America’s MLS. That is not true. These two leagues are different. The Chinese employs active national team players from top European, South American and African countries
Graziano Pelle left everything in Europe to embrace the Chinese Super League. He is still Italy’s top striker and the fifth highest paid player in the world. Ezekiel Lavezzi still plays for his national team.
These players know that in four, five years time they will retire from the game and fall back on what they made while still active. I have also heard many people say that the players going to China are only South Americans and Africans. But I ask, ‘how many Europeans leave their countries to play in other countries, even within Europe?’ The migrant players are usually from South America and Africa, English players hardly leave the Premiership for other countries.
Aside the French, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese players, other Europeans hardly move. So, it is normal that the same group of players will troop to China. The question should be whether they have what it takes to play at the top level and the answer is yes because most of them still play for their national teams.
Recently, the Chinese Super League body came out with a rule that clubs can only field three foreign players in a game. Will that not hinder the teams’ bid to use foreign stars to attract fans to their stadia and also develop local talent?
A team fields 11 players and out of the number, three are quality foreign stars, who can influence the performance of the other players. Over time, I am sure they will get to a point where the nationality of a player will no longer matter.
Remember, they have two World Cup winning coaches, Marcelo Lippi and Felipe Scolari, helping them to develop their structures. Sven Goran Eriksson, Manuel Pellegrini and Mano Menezes all part of the Chinese revolution.
They are not in the game for charity. Rather, they are hiring the best managers to get them to the level where they can compete with other leagues.
You have been involved with the Bundesliga for close to four years and now you are into the Chinese League; is there are any similarity in their organization and appeal to quality players?
The Bundesliga is not yet as popular as the English Premiership in sub-Sahara Africa, but it will get there. Some four, five years ago only a few people talked about the Bundesliga, but things are changing.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the rage was the Italian Serie A and before then it was the Bundesliga. In the 1970s, the Brazilian League held sway… that was how we got to know about Corinthians, Botafogo, Sao Paolo, Fluminese, Santos and Flamingo. The era now is the English Premiership… it is a circle.
The Bundesliga is actually tactically higher than most leagues and it is the one that has recorded the highest number of spectators for the last five years.
In what ways are Startimes affecting the viewing pattern of the Nigerian football fans?
Subscribers on the Startimes platform can watch over 40 matches every weekend. These include nine Bundesliga games, 10 matches of the Serie A, at least five matches of the French Lique One, three of the Belgian Jupilar League, four games from the Chinese Super League, two MLS games, three from the Dutch Eredivise and one English Premier League game on Saturday.
One of the strategies we have adopted to domesticate the Chinese League is by acquiring a customised studio in Lagos, from where our programmes would be broadcast to subscribers across the country.
Don’t forget that we have the right to the European World Cup qualifiers. The studio owned by Nigerians is for Nigerians. That means that Nigerians will do the production, analysis and see to the broadcast of our programmes from the beginning till they get to the subscribers.