From left to right: Richard Masters, Phil Babb, Mark Bright, and Mark Sutcliffe pose in front of the Premier League Asia Trophy in Hong Kong. Photo: Chris Wong / Power Sport Images
From left to right: Richard Masters, Phil Babb, Mark Bright, and Mark Sutcliffe pose in front of the Premier League Asia Trophy in Hong Kong. Photo: Chris Wong / Power Sport Images

English Premier League general manager Richard Masters has thrown his support behind the rise of football in China, revealing members of his organization are in constant contact with their counterparts in the Chinese Super League.

“Football is not the number one sport in China and we think the development of domestic football is a good thing,” Masters said in an interview on Thursday.

“It’s a good thing for Premier League. We have a co-operation agreement with the Chinese Super League, so we hope the strengthening of that competition will widen the interest in international football and us in particular. We’re doing everything we can to assist in that development including sharing knowledge and a lot of other things.”

Phil Babb at a morning training session with Hong Kong children for the launch of the Premier League Asia Trophy 2017. Photo: Chris Wong/Power Sport Images

As well as the prices now being paid for international players to come to China to play – Chelsea last season offed Oscar to Shanghai SIPG for a cool US$63 million – Chinese businessmen continue to eye clubs across Europe as investment opportunities, driven no doubt in part by the fact that President Xi Jinping is an avid fan of the game who has expressed his desire to see his nation host (and win) the World Cup in the coming few decades.

There have so far been hits (Manchester City continue to thrive following an injection of funds from China Media Capital), and misses (Birmingham City continue to struggle after the reign of Hong Kong hair dresser-turned-investor Carson Yeung). The terraces and the tabloids in the United Kingdom have in particular seen a “good thing/bad thing” argument rage.

Argentine striker Carlos Tevez poses after signing for Shanghai Shenhua in December 2016, a move that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid football player then. Photo: AFP

Masters stuck to the EPL script when it came to the issue of Chinese ownership.

“It’s up to clubs to decide who they wish to sell to,” he said. “It is our job as a governing body to ensure that everybody is fit and proper. Everyone has to pass the same test. There is no nationality test. It is about the suitability of you – you and the company you are putting forward. The fact that there’s been a greater interest from China I put down to the fact that China is changing as opposed to the Premier League [changing].”

Masters said the EPL had been tracking the Chinese’s league’s development but would not comment on its strengths or weaknesses.

“We share knowledge with the China Super League,” he said. “Who are we to pass judgment on other leagues? We don’t do that at all. What we’re interested in is the long-term development. Chinese football has taken some huge strides forward over the past few years and we see that as a positive thing.”

Masters was in Hong Kong on Thursday to launch the upcoming edition of the off-season Premier League Asia Trophy, which will feature Liverpool as well as Leicester, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace for games in July.

China dream. Photo: Reuters

In the decade since Liverpool were last in town for the tournament – losing 4-2 on penalties to Portsmouth in the final – the very nature of the game in the United Kingdom has changed, led by a rash of Chinese businessmen who are buying up clubs across the leagues and thus pinning those clubs’ fortunes to their own.

West Brom are a case in point, with hitherto unknown Chinese businessman Lai Guochuan last year buying in to the tune of an estimated £200 million (US$258,000).

Masters said Asian fans were the “source of the river” in terms of the rising global popularity of the EPL, and that the money men from the region were following suit simply because of this sustained rise in interest.

“The interest from China in the Premier League and in English football clubs is because we obviously have a global appeal and a sustainable model that people have faith in, more than anything else,” said Masters.

Premier League Asia Trophy will be played in Hong Kong on July 19 and 22.