China's huge soccer fan base continues to attract the soccer business world. However Jorge Vergara seems to have stepped it up a notch.
Jorge Vergara, Omnilife's founder who has built his fortune on nutrients and vitamin supplements is looking to extend his business in China and also to start a soccer club as part of the Chivas brand. He already owns Chivas Gualdajara, Deportivo Saprissa, and Chivas USA. In the USA, Vergara is known as a rabble rouser with his slogan for Chivas USA "Adios Soccer, Hello Futbol" seemingly used to exploit the differences between the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA fanbase.
He is presently negotiating to buy a first division club to be named Chivas Hefei. Chivas will soon announce the formation of the new club. Gualdajara and Saprissa have been entirely built around local talent from youth divisions with no expensive transfers and in keeping with the same philosophy, Chivas will train 100 Chinese players at their facilities at Gualdajara.
This is all part of Jorge Vergara's vision of introducing the Chivas brand of soccer to rest of the world. His primary target is to purchase a first division Spanish side like Malaga and allow for transfers between his clubs to get a wide exposure. Thus, you could get to see Spanish players playing in China. It is akin to a baseball farm system on a global level. Vergara is not the first foreign owner to buy a Chinese club and in fact, Sheffield Utd earned that distinction when they purchased second division club Chengdu Bull Five in 2006.
So why would Vergara succeed where other clubs have largely given up any long term goal? The most salient point is that Vergara does not own a club that is widely known outside of their country. Thus, his purpose is not merchandising a product, it is the propagation of a long term soccer idiom.
Vergara's purchase of a soccer club is very different from giants Manchester United whose presence in China is driven by a concerted effort to tap the earning potential of its estimated 10m fans which has been limited to merchandising and name branding rather than actual long term investment in infrastructure and training. There maybe truth to this as the signing of Dalian Shide's Dong Fangzhou has often been cited as an example of the club's cynical opportunism rather than actual belief in the player's ability.
Nick Harris reports that Europe's richest clubs are viewed by many fans in China as having a short-term, opportunist interest in their support. Manchester United and Real Madrid both faced indifference and attracted less than capacity crowds on short tours last summer. The Football League with its less overt pecuniary interests and long standing education programs are trusted more and have been approached by Chinese athletic officials to explore long term relationships.
So far, Man Utd has not even explored the possibility of a Chinese version of its famed youth academy which would prove to be a magnet for thousands of aspiring soccer players in a country that languishes behind neighbors Japan and S.Korea in soccer achievements and is desperate for international recognition.
If Vergara's record at Deportivo Saprissa is anything to go on then Chinese fans and officials have something to cheer about. Vergara took over Saprissa in 2003, including only players with Costa Rican nationality. It has become Costa Rica's most successful club to date.
They were the 2005 CONCACAF club champions in 2005 and came third in the Toyota CWC that year. Saprissa also contributed 8 players in the national squad to the 2006 World Cup, the most of any club in the world, and it's presence is directly linked to the success that Los Ticos have enjoyed in the world stage. They presently rank 52nd as compared to China's 85th position in the FIFA rankings.