In November 2020, Jiangsu Football Club clutched the China Super League trophy for the first time, having beaten eight-time champion Guangzhou Evergrande. Today, with a new season about to start, it is out of business: Pressure on embattled retailer Suning Appliance Group Co. forced the conglomerate to reconsider its investment in the team. China’s soccer bubble is rapidly deflating.

Encouraged by President Xi Jinping’s love of the game, his stated desire to build a sporting superpower and soccer master plans, companies and wealthy backers poured cash into China’s clubs, training and more. Stunts like Xi’s 2015 visit to English club Manchester City — including a selfie with star striker Sergio Aguero — prompted them to gloss over the rickety financials of a business that even in established European leagues tends to burn more cash than it generates. The political benefits, at least, were clear.

Businessmen went overseas with gusto, snapping up clubs from 2014 until official warnings over "irrational” behavior began to trickle down a few years later. Suning bought a majority stake in storied Italian side Inter Milan in 2016. (The club says Suning remains committed, but will seek strategic financial partners.) Meanwhile, Europe’s biggest names wooed China’s 1.4 billion potential fans.