When Argentine footballer Ezequiel Lavezzi signed to Hebei China Fortune from French team Paris St-Germain last month, it was reported he would earn more than RMB215 million for his two-year deal. That is over RMB2 million a week, and makes him the fifth highest-paid player in the world, behind only Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney and Ibrahimovic. This was enough to make him pick a life in Qinhuangdao instead of joining the likes of Chelsea, Inter Milan or Juventus.
Yet this is no isolated case. During the winter transfer window, the Chinese Super League’s transfer record seemed to be broken almost weekly. When the 2016 season kicks off on March 5, the new faces will include Brazilians Alex Teixeira (bought for RMB350 million from Shakhtar Donetsk), Ramires (RMB230 million from Chelsea), and ex-Manchester City striker Jo, who have all been bought by Chinese FA Cup winners Jiangsu (who have themselves been bought by electronics giant Suning Commerce Group).
Over in Hebei, Lavezzi will be teaming up with Ivorian striker Gervinho (bought from Roma for RMB105 million), while Asian Champions Guangzhou Evergrande paid RMB285 million to Atletico Madrid for Colombian striker Jackson Martínez. His compatriot Fredy Guarín joined Shanghai Shenhua from Inter Milan for RMB75 million.
Beijing Guo’an, meanwhile, have been a little more modest – their Brazilian trio of Renato Augusto, Kléber and Ralf only boast 15 caps for the Brazilian national team between them. That might be tongue-in-cheek, but only just; across town, China League One club Beijing Renhe have spent RMB40 million bringing in Croatian striker Nikica Jelavic from West Ham. Yes, you read correctly: a player has swapped the English Premier League for the second tier of Chinese football.
According to Forbes, the CSL spent more in the winter transfer window than any other league in the world, coming in at just under RMB2.2 billion (and it has probably gone up by the time you read this). That’s more than the English Premier League. And more than the top leagues in Italy, Germany, Spain and France… combined. And consider this fact: after the CSL, EPL and Italy’s Serie A, who spent the fourth most? China League One.
Much of the League One money came from just down the road at Tianjin Quanjian. The city’s second team, which was recently acquired by Quanjian Natural Medicine, are splashing the cash like only the nouveau riche know how. They have employed ex-Brazil coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo on over RMB50 million a year net and blown another RMB70 million on 28-year-old goalkeeper Zhang Lu, a player with only two national team appearances to his name. They also boast former Brazil striker Luís Fabiano, who's had previous stints at Porto and Sevilla.
So what’s going on? It all seems to go back to President Xi Jinping, who has declared his dedication to the development of the game. This mandate stretches from grassroots-level football, right the way through to hosting – and even winning – the World Cup.
A part of this process seems to involve pouring vast amounts of money into the country’s professional clubs. Presumably, the hope is that a strong domestic league, bolstered by foreign talent, will aid the improvement of domestic players, as well as helping China to become seen as a credible World Cup host. Whether it will work, only time will tell. For now, football fans can only sit back and start watching what should be a decade-long, decadent show.