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Pandas and strikers: China's relationship with German football

Asian tours, big money transfers, billionaire investors and a Chinese team in Germany's fourth tier. DW Sports' Matt Ford asks what is behind China's interest in German football.

In a Berlin zoo, Meng Meng and Jiao Qing, two adult giant pandas, settled in to their new home having been flown from China as a token of German-Chinese friendship. Meanwhile, Bundesliga striker Anthony Modeste remained in Cologne to negotiate a potential transfer to China while his teammates headed off to a pre-season training camp in Austria. The two stories are not unrelated.

Last season, Modeste's 25 league goals helped propel FC Cologne back into European competition for the first time in a quarter of a century. But they also attracted attention far beyond the borders of Europe. For weeks now, rumors have abounded regarding the Frenchman's future, with Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian prepared to offer around 35 million euros ($40m) for the 29-year-old striker.

Matt Ford Kommentarbild

DW's Matt Ford

Modeste would not be the first Bundesliga player to head to the Middle Kingdom. Anthony Ujah moved from Werder Bremen to Liaoning FC last summer for 11.5 million euros, while midfielder Sejad Salihovic swapped Hoffenheim for BJ Renhe in 2015. Borussia Dortmund's Bundesliga top-scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is also the subject of interest.

Potential investors

But China's interest in German football doesn't end with simply signing Bundesliga players. According to German business magazine "Capital," Chinese investment conglomerate Fosun has expressed an interest in purchasing shares in at least six Bundesliga clubs since 2015, including Werder Bremen, Hertha Berlin, VfL Wolfsburg, Hamburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund.

While German football's 50+1 ownership law, which prevents any single entity from acquiring a majority stake in a club, generally causes talks to quickly stall, the clubs themselves are nevertheless interested in co-operation with China.

Dortmund have been directing their Far East presence from an office in Singapore since 2014 and Bayern Munich followed suit with an office of their own in Shanghai in September 2016. Both clubs regularly embark on off-season tours of the region, interacting with fans and sponsors, while Wolfsburg also have a significant presence through their parent company, carmaker Volkswagen.

Deutschland | FC Bayern startet Football School in Shenzhen (picture-alliance/Photoshot)

Bayern Munich have a well-established presence in China

A Chinese team in the German league?

The relationship between China and the Bundesliga deepened last month when plans emerged to integrate a Chinese U20 XI into the Regionalliga West - the western section of German football's five-division fourth tier - prompting mixed reactions from fans and clubs.

The proposals came amid political moves to further China's diplomatic relationship with Germany. Furthermore, the country's football-mad president, Xi Jinping, is intent on turning his nation into a footballing superpower and sees Germany as the perfect partner to learn from. So what is it that the Chinese find so attractive about Germany?

"The German way of doing business is much more conducive to development of Chinese football," explained Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, England, and an expert in Chinese football and business.

"The Germans take a much more bilateral view," he told DW. "They believe that if you're going to work successfully, you need to help each other. You need to contribute something tangible. Which is very similar to the way the Chinese operate."

China Fußball WM Qualifikation China - Südkorea (Getty Images/AFP/STR)

Plans for a Chinese U20 national team to play in the German league system met with a mixed response

'A bilateral relationship'

Should proposals to include a Chinese U20 national team come to fruition, Chadwick explained, China would see Germany as actively contributing to its aims to boost football in the country.

"It's a bilateral relationship whereby the Chinese and their U20 team would get international exposure, play against better opposition and receive better training," he says. "The Germans are seen as making a tangible contribution."

In return, Chadwick believes Germany stands to benefit from a stronger negotiating position with China than, for example, the United Kingdom, where football clubs' motives in the Far East are viewed with more suspicion.

"[The perception in China is that] the British tend to be very short term and financially driven and that English clubs are just looking to make money," he explains. "But the Germans play a longer, bilateral game which may not necessarily involve any hard cash in the short term.

"The Chinese are likely to view this sort of deal very warmly and won't feel exploited or targeted. So when it comes to securing other commercial or industrial deals, even outside football, Germany is well-placed. The Germans are seen as showing regard for Chinese national development, and this ties in with the more general pro-German sentiment in China."

For China, German experience and expertise is key to the country's ambitions to become a football powerhouse. And, with the resources at their disposal, it won't be long before we start to see improvements on the pitch. For Germany, the long-term benefits are likely to be seen far beyond football.

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