Are we witnessing the birth of a new football superpower? Just a few years ago, Chinese league football play was little more than a footnote. With the Premier League, the La Liga, the Bundesliga, the Serie A, and the Ligue 1-not to mention other increasingly competitive divisions like the Dutch Eredivisie-what was there to draw players to China? And without the star players, what did China have to draw international audiences?
In the past few weeks, though, it's become clear that ignoring the Chinese Super League might not be an option for much longer. This week alone, there are numerous high-profile headlines pertaining to Chinese football. There's the Daily Star article about how current Paris Saint Germain star (and major Chelsea target) Ezequiel Lavezzi could make a move to China at the end of the season, instead of moving to the Premier League. There's the Telegraph piece about how Chinese President Xi Jinping is "setting the stage" for high-value player acquisitions in his country. Of course, there's plenty of news about recent record-breaking transfers like Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, and Ramires.
China's Not-So-Secret WeaponÂ
So how are Chinese football clubs starting to beat out other teams in the race for transfers? Is the Chinese Super League like the new version of Major League Soccer, where older, past-their-prime players go to have a few more years in the spotlight?
In fact, no, China's rise as a soccer superpower has nothing to do with being a place for once-great players to stave off retirement. On the contrary, Jinping wants the Chinese Super League to be the place where the world's best players go to compete during their primes, and the league's clubs are drawing ever nearer to that destination with each passing day.
What's the secret weapon? Well, it's actually not such a secret: money. One of the players mentioned in the Telegraph piece was Dario Conca, who currently plays for Chinese squad Shanghai SIPG. Conca is a midfielder who hails from Argentina-the birthplace of current Ballon d'Or holder Lionel Messi. While Conca and Messi are countrymen, though, they've never played as part of the same team because Conca has never been capped for Argentina's senior national squad.
Needless to say, Dario Conca doesn't hold a candle to Messi in terms of statistics or accomplishments. Ever since Conca moved to China in 2011, though (signing first with Guangzhou Evergrande), he has been on the same level as Messi in at least one respect: money.
Recent Chinese Transfers
China's soccer clubs have cash to burn and big ambitions, and the monetary attractions of playing in the Chinese Super League are proving too tempting for some players to ignore. On February 3rd, the announcement came down the pipeline that Evergrande had signed Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez for a reported €42 million. The transfer is a big one, considering that Atletico just signed Martinez last summer. It was also-however briefly-an all-time record fee for a Chinese club.
The Martinez fee was smashed just two days later when another Chinese Super League team-Jiangsu Suning-scooped up Shakhtar Donetsk star Alex Teixeira for €50 million. The attacking midfielder had been a top target of Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, but he's off the market now. The transfer came just a couple weeks after Jiangsu Suning had paid €28 million to buy Ramires from Chelsea-a figure that had also stood as an all-time Chinese record until the Martinez transfer broke it.
Also making moves to China so far in 2016 are Gervinho (from Roma to Hebei China Fortune) and Freddy Guarin (ditching Internazionale for Shanghai Shenhua). 2014/15 Champions League standout Luiz Adriano (who just moved from Shakhtar Donetsk to AC Milan last summer) nearly joined the exodus on a €14 million transfer to Jiangsu Suning, but the deal couldn't be finalized.
With so many notable players heading to China in such a short period of time, the only question is who could go next? Lavezzi, free of contractual obligations of PSG at the end of the current season, certainly seems like he could be lured by the deep pockets of a Chinese soccer club. Football pundits are also wondering if China could be the next stop for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Yaya Toure, and Chelsea captain John Terry.
Whether or not these big names can make China a football superpower remains to be seen. However, the sudden possibility of one or all three moving to the Chinese Super League at the end of the 2015/16 campaign is something that is sure to affect how other clubs approach the market this summer. Ibrahimovic, Toure, and Terry would all be notable signings for virtually any club, and with China joining the fray, the battle for the world's best players could become very different in the next year or two.
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