China seeks high-profile soccer imports | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 24.05.2012
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China seeks high-profile soccer imports

The Chinese Super League is hardly the most famous in world soccer but is starting to poach some of the game's top names. It's not just veterans seeking a windfall in their autumn years who are looking east.

Champions League winner Didier Drogba, who has said he would have stayed at Chelsea if they had lost the final against Bayern Munich at the weekend, is the latest top tier footballer to be linked with a move east.

Should Drogba's rumored move to Shanghai Shenhua come to pass, he would join another ex-Chelsea player, former French international Nicolas Anelka, at the club.

Didier Drogba of Chelsea celebrates after the Champions League final

Ivorian veteran Drogba says he wants a new challenge

Anelka went to China mid-season during the January transfer window, and will be plying his trade against a very famous Bundesliga face in the future.

Paraguayan international striker Lucas Barrios, the man who led the Borussia Dortmund line in their 2010/11 championship season before losing his starting spot to Poland's Robert Lewandowski this past season, has signed with Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande FC.

According to the Chinese magazine "Football," Evergrande is eying up a Bundesliga shopping spree more generally, with Bayer Leverkusen's Stefan Kiessling and Gonzalo Castro also on their wish list. Star midfielder at London club Fulham, Bryan Ruiz, is another of Evergrande's supposed transfer targets.

Fußball Bundesliga 26. Spieltag: Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Borussia Mönchengladbach am Samstag (17.03.2012) in der BayArena in Leverkusen. Leverkusens Stefan Kießling reagiert nach einer vergebenen Torchance. Foto: Marius Becker dpa/lnw (Achtung Sperrfrist! Die DFL erlaubt die Weiterverwertung der Bilder im IPTV, Mobilfunk und durch sonstige neue Technologien erst zwei Stunden nach Spielende. Die Publikation und Weiterverwertung im Internet ist während des Spiels auf insgesamt fünfzehn Bilder pro Spiel begrenzt.) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Former German under-21 captain Stefan Kiessling is a potential target

Outgoing Bayern veteran Danijel Pranjic and Hamburg's Croatian star Mladen Petric are also free agents reportedly considering big money contract offers from China.

Outside stars promoting national game

One of the first European pro-footballers to head to the Chinese Super League was retired Jörg Albertz. The midfielder, thrice a German international, moved from Hamburg to Shanghai Shenhua for two seasons in his early thirties before returning to the lower leagues in Germany.

"[China's Super League] is no longer satisfied with its status compared to its counterparts in other countries," Albertz told DW. "The league is working really hard on this and to progress it of course needs great players, big names."

The idea is that these talented players will also to promote the development of homegrown Chinese talents. The league's rules governing foreign players are designed to help ensure this; teams are limited to a total of five foreign starters, one of whom must hail from an Asian Football Confederation member country.

Marcello Lippi

Talent and tactics imports - Marcello Lippi coaches Evergrande

Imports can earn big money there, Lucas Barrios is said to have signed a deal worth 6 million euros (roughly $7.5 million) per year at Evergrande. The club is also building a top-drawer youth academy, a project that has attracted interest from Real Madrid. Perhaps its biggest coup, however, was snapping up Italian national team coach Marcello Lippi.

Billionaires' playthings

Like several European clubs nowadays the big spenders in the Chinese Super League are usually propped up either by a major company or a wealthy private patron.

Anelka's Shanghai Shenhua belongs to Chinese businessman Zhu Jun, who has earned millions with online computer games.

Lucas Barrios' new club in Guangzhou, meanwhile, is property of the real estate company Evergrande - hence its full name. Company chairman Xu Jiayin was ranked fifth in the Hurun Report magazine's annual Chinese rich list, with an estimated fortune of $7 billion.

The idea of aging football stars seeking one last golden handshake is nothing new, with Japan, the US, Turkey, Russia and the Middle East all possible destinations. But journalist Oliver Voss from the Wirtschaftswoche business magazine sees a difference in China's case.

"What's surprising and new here is that the clubs are buying up players like, for instance, Lucas Barrios, who is only 27 years old," Voss said, adding that Barrios might have had several other options open to him at top clubs Europe.

Jörg Albertz in action for Shanghai Shenhua

Jörg Albertz played for two seasons in Shanghai

The Leverkusen duo of Gonzalo Castro (24) and Stefan Kiessling (28) are other examples of possible Chinese transfer targets still very much in their prime.

Pay-check versus prominence

Up to now, Latin America has been the happiest hunting ground for Super League sides. The league's top scorers and most valuable players of the past four seasons all hailed from Brazil, Honduras, Argentina, or Colombia.

Argentine playmaker Dario Conca moved to Evergrande FC in July 2011, just after being named player of the year in the Brazilian top division. He is said to earn 10 million euros a year, which would make him one of the top-five earners in world football. The 29-year-old has never represented Argentina.

There's a risk involved for younger players tempted by a contract even more exorbitant than an "average" pro football deal. It's tough to get noticed in a league that at the moment has a rather low status.

"I do think that it is very difficult to find another home somewhere else after a move to China," ex-Shanghai Shenhua player Albertz said. "You do then drop off the radar."

After two title-winning seasons with Borussia Dortmund, Lucas Barrios is likely to experience a different year at his new club.

Author: Christoph Ricking / msh
Editor: Rina Goldenberg