The January transfer window was defined by the inexorable financial rise of Chinese clubs. DW's Matt Pearson explores why China has made such an emphatic entry into the market and whether it can become a powerhouse.
Big name footballers joining clubs in obscure leagues is nothing new. David Beckham, Alessandro Del Piero and Rivaldo are among those who chose to wind down their careers outside of the sport's traditional heartlands.
But in the early part of 2016, the Chinese Super League has leapt in to the spotlight armed with wads of cash, targetting players in their prime and potentially threatening the dominance of the major European Leagues.
Wednesday's transfer of Ezequiel Lavezzi from Paris Saint-Germain to Hebei Fortune is just the latest in a series of deals to take top players to the Far East - the Argentine could net upwards of 15 million euros ($16.8 million) per season in China.The headline grabbers have been Jackson Martinez, who moved from Atletico Madrid to Guangzhou Evergrande
for 40 million euros, Chelsea's Champions League-winning midfielder Ramires who joined Jiangsu Suning for 27 million euros andShakthar's Alex Teixeira who seemed to be on the verge of a move to Liverpoo
l before joining Jiangsu for 50 million euros.
These aren't washed up greats trading on their former glories for a nice little earner and an easy life. With the exceptions of Lavezzi (30) and Obafemi Martins, who is 31, the league's high-profile signings have all been under 30. To the names of Martinez (29), Ramires (28) and Teixeira (26), you can add Jo (28), who appeared for Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, Gervinho (28), a regular for Serie A side Roma for the last three years and former Inter Milan midfielder Fredy Guarin (29).
Despite the closure of the European transfer window, Chinese clubs can buy players until February 26, leading to frenzied speculation about who will be next. Manchester United's Juan Mata, Chelsea's Oscar and Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery have all been linked with Chinese clubs in the past month.
Keeping up with the Evergrandes and the domestic player premium
Li Shitao, an editor at DW's Chinese service, says the success of Guangzhou's big money approach under Italian World Cup winners Marcello Lippi and Fabio Cannavaro in the early part of the decade (five consecutive league titles and the Asian Champions League title in 2013) has inspired other clubs to follow their lead.
He also believes the lack of top Chinese players - and league rules that allow a maximum of five foreigners per team - distorts the value of domestic players and make imports look better value than they appear.
"Top Chinese players are very rare and the transfer fees are already at quite a high level," he said. "Sometimes the clubs have to pay millions of euros for one national player. Comparing with this, 50 million euros for a player such as Alex Teixeira is not so expensive."
Figures from transfermarkt.co.uk support this hypothesis. The discrepancy between the estimated 'market value' of Chinese players and their actual transfer fee is often staggering.
Chinese defensive midfielder Xuri Zhao, for example, is valued by the site at £150,000 (€200,000) but moved from Guanzhou to second tier side TJ Quanjian for twenty times that - £3.15million (€4million). Teixeira's market value was £22.5million (€28million) and he went for less than double - £37.5m (48.5million).
The influence of political interests
Without the obvious revenue streams of the European giants and with average attendances sitting at about 22,000 in a country of 1.35 billion, it isn't always clear where the money in Chinese football is coming from.
As you may expect, some Chinese clubs, like Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua are at least partly state-owned, while others appear to be in private hands but still benefit from playing the political game, according to Li Shitao.
"I think there is indeed a political element to the huge spending wave in Chinese football," he said. "The mighty Chinese leader Xi Jinping is a big football fan, and everyone in China knows that. For example, he paid a visit to the English club Man City during his trip to UK.
"Sure, it does not mean the clubs can get money direct from the government but indirectly they of course profit from it. For example, it is no coincidence that many Chinese football clubs (such as Guangzhou) are owned by real estate groups, whose businesses are very much dependant on their relationship with the local governments."
A new five-year TV deal with a "company with a strong government background" worth almost 1.25 billion hasn't hurt either.
Can China really become a genuine global player?
There have been big spenders from smaller leagues over the past couple of decades (Japan and the UAE for example) but no-one has really threatened to challenge the dominance of the European and South American heavyweights. But some in the game believe China, with a focus on younger players, a huge population and growing political will could upset the applecart.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger recently discussed the issue, as reported by the Daily Telegraph: "China looks to have the financial power to move the whole game to China," he said. "We know it’s just a consequence of economic power and they have that."
"I don’t know how deep the desire in China is, but if it’s a very deep political desire then we should be worried.”
If the Chinese Super League's development continues at the pace it has set in 2016 then the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and, to a lesser extent, the Premier League could all have cause for concern, with prices and competition for the best players set to rocket and huge wages in the far east bound to cause ripples and several dressing room discussions among players.
DW's Li Shitao doesn't think Chinese clubs invest enough in infrastructure to make success sustainable long term but Australian international Tim Cahill, who was released by Shanghai Shenhua on Tuesday after almost a year, thinks the rules are different in China.
"When they (the Chinese clubs) want something, they get it and when they don't want something they get rid of it," he told Fox Sports before his release. "It's pretty much like a revolving door, you see a lot of players coming in and a lot of players going. It's crazy to see but this is only going to get worse. This is going to be massive, soon they'll break the $100 million mark easily."