What's going on with Chinese football?

After the Chinese transfer record was been broken for the third time in 10 days, Chris Atkins explains the recent influx of big name foreign stars to the league

Although the arrival of Pep Guardiola to Manchester City trumped everything else that went on during the January transfer window, the sudden explosion of Chinese football into the market has also been making headlines. 

Notably, Chelsea sold Ramires to Jiangsu Suning, Gervinho left Roma to join Hebei China Fortune, Freddy Guarin completed a switch to Shanghai Shenhua and Jackson Martínez sealed a stunning move to Guangzhou Evergrande for a fee in the region of €45 million from La Liga title challengers Atlético Madrid.

Add to that the fact Alex Teixeira, a target for Liverpool for much of the transfer window, finally confirmed his move to on Thursday night, for a fee of around €50 million, meaning that the Chinese transfer record was broken three times in the last ten days.

Christopher Atkins, a player agent working in China, told us that while the rest of the world is shocked, it's no surprise to those who are involved in football in the country. 

"I think it's been happening for a while now, but a lot of the media attention has only come in the last week or so because Ramires probably kicked off this latest rush. 

Image: Fluminense's Dario Conca, from Argentina, celebrates after scoring against Argentina's Boca Juniors during a Copa Libertadores soccer semifinal. Silvia Izquierdo / AP/Press Association Images

"It was back in 2011 that Guangzhou Evergrande made their first big statement of intent signing Dario Conca, who was the Brazilian player of the year at the time, followed by Marcelo Lippi as coach. I think Lippi was probably the first big name that people were surprised about [...] he was still very much in demand as a coach at that point, and now we're starting to see players who are not really right at the end of their career, they're still 27 or 28 and they're deciding to head to Asia as a result of the substantial amounts of money on offer".

For Martínez, the decision to move away from a team where he was clearly struggling was perhaps made a lot easier by the fact that there was a wage packet on offer that simply couldn't be matched anywhere else. As Atkins notes, "he is supposedly, according to reports, taking home €12.5 million a year in net salary, so that's substantial to say the least. It puts him around number five world wide on the list of best paid players".

While that is at the top end of the market, Atkins adds that players like Guarin and Ramires are probably earning between €5-8 million a year, around double what they would be taking home in Europe.

So where has all this money come from, and why is it all of a sudden being pumped into football? Atkins highlighted that there are a number of big Chinese enterprises, the majority of which are based in real estate, investing their cash in the sport:

"These companies come from different backgrounds, but they all have similar reasons for getting involved. Maybe for winning political favour when it comes to the next round of contracts being given out or, in some cases, there are even suggestions that it's money they need to deal with quickly, for whatever reason". 

A burgeoning middle class in the country has also helped to push this investment on to the next level, driven from the top down. 

Image: Paulinho, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, is another player to make the move to China with Guangzhou Evergrande. Shuji Kajiyama / AP/Press Association Images

"The government in China really wants to invest in the entertainment industry," adds Atkins. "It's been primarily a manufacturing based economy for a long time, but China has now developed this big middle class [...] with lots of disposable income, so to diversify the economy they're investing in entertainment, and sport is a big feature of that". 

While economics is part of the reason, Atkins also argued that there is a desire within the country to try and move up in the estimations of their neighbours and global partners, which can be achieved by highlighting the process of change that is currently taking place in China.

"It makes clever economic sense to branch out into sports, and football has the best global appeal - every country in the world has a big interest in football - and if China can develop its own league and host the World Cup, which is a stated ambition of the president, then there will be a lot of eyes on China's development". 

While the national team has not yet seen any benefit of the sudden influx of cash, the footballing culture is slowly but surely changing, thanks to the success of Guangzhou Evergrande. With five league titles and two Asian Champions League wins to their name recently, "there are a lot of people who weren't following football who now know the name of Evergrande", but it could take a lot longer to develop a real love of the game.

So where does China go from here? While Atkins argues that there will undoubtedly be more big names signed, they are a long way off competing globally with the world's biggest leagues.

"The future  for Chinese football has to be in developing their own talent They will continue to bring in bigger names, this is only the start of that trend [...] but the way to compete with those top leagues is to have the local talent at a much higher level.

"Even if you just throw money at it, football is a far more complicated beast than that". 

Tune in to Team 33 next week to hear Chris Atkins and the team delve into this topic in more detail