Incredibly, the news of Paris Saint-Germain superstar Ezekiel Lavezzi’s transfer to a hitherto unknown Chinese football club doesn’t feel like much of a shock.
Had this money-spinning move taken place even a month back, however, you would likely have heard the dropping of Parisian jaws from the other side of the Channel Tunnel.
Chinese Football Transfers: The Power in Football is Shifting East
Our attitudes have changed so quickly because Lavezzi’s move to Hebei China Fortune is only the latest in a month of incredible Chinese football transfers which have seen several top stars move from European clubs to the Eastern economic powerhouse.
Among others, Chelsea’s Ramires made the move to Shanghai in January, while former Atlético Madrid striker Jackson Martínez left Spain for Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. Even Nikica Jelavić has got in on the act, swapping England’s Premier Division for Chinese Second Division side Beijing Renhe, where he joins former Bayern Munich man Zvjezdan Misimović.
But although it may appear that the influx of capital and willingness to pay top money for big names in Chinese football is a phenomenon created in 2016, this process has been going on for a while.
Back in 2013, former Chelsea team-mates Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka briefly linked up at Shanghai Shenua, before citing the need to play at a higher level as a reason for their departures. Asamoah Gyan signed for Shanghai SIPG last summer on a huge contract, where he receives a reported £227,000 per week.
Furthermore, China is far from the first country in the East to attract well-known footballing stars with the sweet reward of substantial pay checks.
In 2003, former Germany international Steffen Effenberg and Argentinian legend Gabriel Batistuta became team-mates at Qatar’s Al-Arabi club, where they played against French former World Cup winner Frank Leboeuf. Qatari clubs also managed to attract the likes of the De Boer brothers, Romario, Marcel Desailly and Juninho.
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More recently, several household footballing names have also begun to leave the shores of Europe for the United States of America’s burgeoning Major League Soccer. Notable examples include former England stars Steven Gerrard, 35, Frank Lampard, 37 and Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, 36.
But although there is also plenty of money in American football, as fellow Last Word On Sports writer Bill Wignall explains, MLS owners have opted to adopt a cautious and responsible approach to investing in their squad. They therefore do not follow the model of continuous and ever-increasing investment in a playing squad used by many European clubs.
The elite footballers moving to the United States and Qatar have usually been in the twilight of their careers and have already played their prime years at the top of the game in Europe.
Until this year, Europe was almost universally seen as being the most attractive place for an elite footballer to play during their prime. Once these peak years had passed and said player had accomplished everything they wished to in Europe, a big-money move out of the Continent would then become an option.
However, in successfully completing moves for the 29 year old Jackson Martinez and 28 year old Ramires- players with several years left at the very top of the game- China has broken the mould.
Indeed, we are now witnessing situations where Chinese sides are going head-to-head with huge European clubs for the services of elite players in their prime, and winning. Top English sides Liverpool and Chelsea were heavily linked with Shakhtar Donetsk’s attacking midfielder Alex Teixeira, but instead of becoming the latest marquee signing for English footballing royalty, the Brazilian attacking midfielder opted to move to China’s Jiangsu Suning.
The implications of this sea-change in world football could well result in European clubs facing a further inflated marketplace for elite players in their prime, seeing their transfer and wage demands spiral up thanks to the willingness of Chinese clubs to match such huge demands. Demand for television rights to Chinese Super League games may further saturate the live football marketplace and impact on demand for coverage of divisions like Spain’s La Liga, France’s Ligue 1 and Italy’s Serie A.
However, for the elite European clubs who have already invested heavily in a Chinese presence, such as Manchester United, the rewards actually may be greater than the pitfalls. Although they may lose out on top transfer targets to Chinese sides, being an established international player in a country where football is likely to vastly increase in popularity cannot be a bad thing.
It appears that for the moment, with the enormous financial investment of club bosses reportedly being welcomed by the Chinese government with which many of them are closely involved, we can expect China’s spending sprees to continue.
And if money is all it takes to tempt elite-level footballers to swap Europe for the East, then we could see clubs in other Eastern countries replicate this model to sway yet more Europe-based stars.
The more this continues, the more we should expect to see the centre of gravity in world football shift from West to East.