Friday February 5th, 2016

When Colombian striker Jackson Martinez moved from Atletico Madrid to Ghuangzhou Evergrande for an Asian record fee of $47.5 million earlier this week, it confirmed a trend that has been growing for three or four years now but has accelerated over the past month. China is a big and emerging market for players.

According to figures from transfermarkt.de, the 16 Chinese Super League clubs have so far spent $289 million between them in this off-season–and with the window still open before the season starts next month, there could be more to come, outstripping the $255 million spent by Premier League clubs in January.

For Martinez, perhaps, China is a lucrative escape after a miserable start to life at Atletico. Ramires has gone from Chelsea and Gervinho from Roma; for them, perhaps, it’s a useful late payday. In all three cases, it’s a way for clubs to make significant sums on players who, for one reason or another, they were looking to offload.

Major winter transfers to China
Jackson Martinez Atletico Madrid to Ghuangzhou Evergrande
Gervinho Roma to Hebei China Fortune
Ramires Chelsea to Jiangsu Suning
Alex Teixeira Shakhtar Donetsk to Jiangsu Suning (reported)
Fredy Guarin Inter Milan to Shanghai Shenhua
Fredy Montero Sporting Lisbon to Tianjin Teda

But it would be wrong to portray the Chinese Super League as another opportunity for aging stars to winkle out one last big pay-day. On Thursday it was reported that Jiangsu Suning, the side that bought Ramires, had also picked up Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for $55 million. But for quibbles over the fee, he would probably have joined Liverpool in January. The club from Nanjing is owned by the Cuning Commerce Group, one of the largest privately owned retailers in China.

There has also been a mass trolley-dash around the Brazilian league, taking advantage of the ailing Brazilian economy to root out bargains. Striker Ricardo Goulart, 24 and arguably the best player in the Brazilian league last season, moved for $18.3 million from Cruzeiro to Ghuangzhou. Chinese clubs signed four players from Brazilian champion Corinthians.

Perhaps the first question to ask is where the money has come from. In part, as everywhere, it’s television revenues. But only in part. In 2015, broadcast rights for the whole league were worth just $9 million. 2016 is the first year of a five-year deal worth $1.25 billion. But in part that’s a reaction to increased interest in the league.

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Attendance last season reached an average of 22,000. This season they’re expected to top 25,000.

The standard of player and the standard of play is improving, largely because of the imports–of the top 10 scorers in the Super League last season, five were Brazilian and only one Chinese.

And that’s really down to investment from companies.

Guangzhou is owned by the Evergrande real estate group and Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce group. Their investment brought in coaches of the profile of Marcello Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari, both World Cup winners. The club has won the last five Chinese league titles as well as the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015. The result has been huge exposure for its backers, not only in China but throughout Asia and, thanks to the Club World Cup, the world.

There remains, though, a major question about sustainability. Investment in football seems to have come just as the Chinese economy is slowing down.

And then there’s the issue of whether the influx will actually improve the level of Chinese football. China has never won the Asian Cup and has qualified for the World Cup only once, a poor record that is known to frustrate president Xi Jinping, who is a football fan. The policy for much of the past couple of decades has been to focus on an elite core at the expense of the grassroots. As Ciro Blazevic, who had a brief spell in charge of China’s Olympic team in 2010-11, noted, while the hot-housing policy may work for individual sports such as diving or gymnastics, it seems less effective for football.

China’s huge advantage should be its population of over 1 billion, but it is negated because the sport is not widely played.

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Raul Simons’s 2008 book "Bamboo Goalposts" explains his efforts to set up a club in China, and the enormous bureaucratic obstacles he had to overcome even to find a pitch on which to play. Until kids are kicking a ball regularly around on the streets or in a field, and until there is a network of clubs to give those who want a more formal arena in which to play, as happens in most of the rest of the world, China will struggle to punch its weight.

Lionel Messi had never shown much interest in football when, at age 4, he wandered into the street where his brothers and father were playing and demonstrated an instant, innate talent. How many born players–and they don’t have to be of Messi’s standard–has China missed out on for want of a grassroots football culture? A government program has been established to encourage the spread of the sport within schools as part of wider investment in football, with securing hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup a key priority.

At least in the short term, though, China has propelled itself into the front rank of alternatives to Europe. And if the growth of the Super League means more people watching games and playing form an early age, more ventures to provide grassroots facilities, then perhaps China can, at last, become a footballing power.

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