What Adelaide United's new Chinese signing says about their Asian strategy

Adelaide United chairman Piet van der Pol. Source: Getty Images

Adelaide United singed Chinese midfielder Chen Yongbin to complete its A-League squad - and fill its international player quota. Asian Football expert John Dureden explains what impacts it could have in Asia.

The Chinese city of Qingdao or Tsingtao could be best known internationally for producing a beer that tastes much better outside China than it does inside.

Adelaide United will be hoping new Chinese signing Chen Yongbin will also be able to show his true worth once he leaves the city and heads to South Australia but fans should not get their hopes too high - this is not your typical football signing.

When AFL club Port Adelaide have a bigger commercial presence in China than Adelaide United then there shouldn’t be any complaints when the A-League club looks to move closer to the world’s most populous country, especially when you consider that plenty have been calling for closer links between Australia and Asia. 

Yet when a chairman announces a new signing then that in itself a sign that this is an unusual football transfer. For a start, it is debatable about how much of it is about football.

For those who missed it, Adelaide United have signed Chen from third-tier Chinese club Qingdao Red Lions, a player who has yet to make a senior professional appearance at home.

Adelaide chairman Piet van der Pol - also chairman of Qingdao - waxed lyrical about the midfielder, who will fill United’s fifth visa spot as well as, potentially, its bank account.

“The Chinese football market is at this moment developing to be the biggest market in the world financially,” said van der Pol. “This gives Adelaide United commercial opportunities,” he added. declaring that there is interest in Chinese media in following Chen’s journey in Australia.

It is an unusual introduction for a young player. Gems can be unearthed anywhere though importing talent with commercial benefits in mind can be a risky business.

If Chen making it on the pitch in Australia is a long shot, him making the club any money off it is also far from certain.

In the past, you could almost hear the commercial departments of European clubs rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of shirt sales and sponsorship opportunities whenever an Asian star was signed.

Some deals were fairly blatant. South Korea’s Ahn Jung-hwan’s move to Perugia in Italy in 2000 would never have happened without the involvement of South Korea car giant Daewoo.  

This automatic expectation of riches from the east has faded over time. What was quickly learnt was that fans can be forged and money can be made but only if the right conditions are in place.

Manchester United did very well with Park Ji-sung off the pitch but less so with Chinese winger Dong Fangzhuo.

The reason was that the South Korean was good enough to play regularly while Dong was not. If your players aren’t playing then interest quickly falls and can even turn to hostility.

This makes it very difficult for Adelaide. Ahn Jung-hwan was a highly-rated and, with his image, a highly-marketable South Korean international when he went to Italy. Nobody in China knows who Chen is. 

Commercially, Adelaide’s job is going to be to try to raise the profile of an unknown player in China despite the fact that he is not going to be playing football - van der Pol has already said that Adelaide’s new addition will need several months to adjust.

That is going to be extremely tough but when Port Adelaide can forge out commercial opportunities in China despite playing a sport that is unknown in the country then perhaps there is something in the South Australian water.

It could be that Chen will become an A-League star. If so then Adelaide really will reap the rewards and the plaudits for what would be a visionary move. It would be quite a story if a reserve player from a third-tier Chinese club can become a force at the former Asian Champions League finalist.

If he fails to make the grade then it won’t help the case of those pushing A-League clubs to do more of their recruitment in Asia.

For there is plenty of talent to the north which is cheap enough to be affordable and good enough to go straight into Adelaide’s first team and actually make United stronger on the pitch immediately.

That does not mean that Adelaide should not develop closer relations with China and the rest of Asia on and off the pitch.

There is plenty that all clubs could do to improve links and recruitment options - develop an extensive scouting network, hold coaching clinics and really work to make a difference at the grassroots. 

In China, European clubs are finding that those who are in it for the long-haul, and not (or at least not blatantly so) looking merely to make some quick cash have the best chance of success - it's common sense.

But bringing in an unknown youngster to your first-team squad in the hope of media exposure and sponsorship is unlikely to do anyone any favours even if Chen will at least be able to enjoy a better class of beer down under.

Source SBS The World Game