Can huge salaries and record-breaking transfer fees for international football stars like Carlos Tevez and Hulk make the Chinese Super League (CSL) as competitive as the English Premier League, Bundesliga or La Liga?
2016 was a great year for Chinese football. It was one record transfer after another, as Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeria joined CSL club Jiangsu Suning for 50 million euros ($52.2 million), followed by compatriot Hulk, who signed a deal with Shangahi's top club SIPG for 55.8 million euros.
But last week, Carlos Tevez's reported 84-million-euro transfer deal dwarfed all previous signings. As a result of the deal, the 32-year-old Argentine, a former striker at Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus and most-recently Boca Juniors, will become the highest-paid footballer in the world. Tevez's two-year contract with Shanghai Shenhua will see him earn 38 million euros per season, according to media reports.
The list doesn't end here - Brazilian star Oscar joined Shanghai SIPG from Premier League side Chelsea, while other recent arrivals in China include Italy striker Graziano Pelle, Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi and Colombia forward Jackson Martinez.
Oscar received a hero's welcome when he landed in Shanghai on January 2 as part of his 60-million-euro signing, which topped the Asian transfer record set by Hulk's arrival just six months earlier. Oscar will reportedly earn 24 million euros per season, which will put him above Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.
In December, Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendes claimed he had received a 300-million-euro transfer bid from China. Although the Portuguese superstar was reportedly offered more than 100 million euros per season, Ronaldo is believed to have turned down the offer.
In 2016, CSL clubs spent some 470 million euros on transfers - more than their dealings in 2014 and 2015 combined. Currently, 96 players from 32 countries play in the league.
The market for football and lovers of the sport are increasing in the country. With an average attendance of 24,000 fans per game, China is certainly way ahead in Asia. The CSL broadcasting rights alone generated about 1.2 billion euros in 2016.
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No wonder that many football agents now tell players that if they want to earn money, they should play in China. But many young European players still don't want to move to the Far East. The money is big, but the quality of football is viewed as not up to the mark - not yet, at least.
"The CSL teams have lured many foreign players and coaches, but they don't stay there for more than a season," said Wu Jingui, sports director for Shanghai's SIPG club. "They sign a three-year contract but only play for a year. Then they wait for a new transfer window while they get paid by their Chinese clubs."
"The only intention of the foreign players to join the CSL is to make money," said Shen Lei, a sports journalist at the Shanghai-based "Wenhui" newspaper. "When a talented South American player moves to Europe, he not only makes good money there but also grows as an athlete. When the players don't see a future in Europe, they go to China," the journalist added.
On an international level, China's national team ranks 82 out of 205 in FIFA's world rankings, trailing countries like Curacao, Uganda and Trinidad and Tobago.
In qualification for the 2018 World Cup, the Chinese team has yet to win a single match. Scoreless in their last four games, China sit bottom of their qualifying group.
Experts say the flipside of having international stars in the CSL is that the country does not invest in grooming its own talent. In the last season, 70 percent of the goals were scored by the foreign players. There was only one Chinese player among the top 10.
There are millions of football fans in China, but they prefer to watch the games on TV rather than in football stadiums. Also, there is no proper training system for the kids.
"It is possible that China can produce a player like Messi, but most fans have never kicked a football in their lifetime," said Shen. "So far, China has only produced football spectators and commentators."