China's emergence as a major player in the transfer market was one of the top soccer stories of 2016.
Amid all the gaudy transfer fees paid by clubs around the world, a curious trend emerged this year: Big-name stars, not particularly old or decreasing in skill, took their talents to China.
The list of players who have bolted Europe or elsewhere for a massive payday in China is impressive, and it's only growing, with the recent addition of Oscar and the reported signing of Carlos Tevez, which will evidently make him the world's highest-paid player. Before them, highly reputable players such as Jackson Martinez, Hulk, Fredy Guarin, Ramires, Graziano Pelle, Gervinho, Alex Teixeira, Fredy Montero, Burak Yilmaz and others–all 31 or under–opted to forego the more traditional dream of a touted European club for the relative anonymity of the Chinese Super League. In all, the CSL spent more than the Premier League on transfers last winter and continues to throw out transfer fees in the tens of millions like Oprah doles out cars.
It was impossible not to take note, though the signings haven't magically made the CSL a premier beacon of competition. What remains to be seen is A) whether this outrageous spending is sustainable and B) what impact the CSL can actually make on the global stage. There appears to be little to no interest in the league in this hemisphere, and while the Asian market is a source of high interest for European clubs, it's the TV money and fan engagement they want, not a deep tie to the domestic league.
In the U.S., MLS commissioner Don Garber has claimed China is not "a competitor at all" and that MLS need not worry about losing talent or potential signings to the CSL, but that public spin takes a backseat to an emerging reality. MLS watched Obafemi Martins ditch Seattle weeks before the 2016 season for the CSL, while Atlanta United was reportedly outbid by Shanghai Shenhua for rising Paraguayan star Oscar Romero. Garber is right in that MLS isn't gunning for a lot of the players who have gone to China, but as its top flight clubs pay more and more for players who do interest the league, it's either going to sting or force MLS to overpay.
Will China become the world's next superpower in both club and international play? We figure to be a long way away from there, but its presence as a player on the transfer market certainly seems like it's only begun to take hold.