Back in the day – and I’m talking no more than a few years ago – a footballer would have harbored aspirations of making it big in one of the world’s major leagues -- La Liga, the Premier League, German Bundesliga, possibly Serie A and France’s Ligue 1. It used to be about the quality of football – playing in the most competitive leagues in the world where your skills will be tested week in week out – but now, a lot of players are deciding to sacrifice this quality and competition for cash.
If you’re an average player and have been struggling to find a place on your team, and all of a sudden you get offered an astronomical figure of £400,000 a week to move to the CSL – as is the situation in ex-Chelsea midfielder Oscar’s case – it’d take a very strong man to turn down that sort of a deal.
Yes, today football is all about money, and it’s the CSL that has seemingly emerged from nowhere over recent years to lead the charge and attempt to attract the biggest names in world football to China.
In an effort to curb the spending spree of CSL clubs, new regulations, which came into effect this week, allow CSL teams to only play three foreign players at any given time. These rules have been enforced to address irrational investments, and because of it, spending has slowed. But CSL teams have still managed to secure some major deals in the recent past.
We’re going to look at the recent big-money transfers to the CSL – the biggest players who have relocated to China in 2016-17.
Oscar’s one of the most recent acquisitions for CSL side, Shanghai SIPG. He’s being trashed from all corners of the media and by plenty of people from his former club, Chelsea, but Oscar doesn’t care; if you’re about to earn £60m – that’s £400,000 a week – why would you give a damn what others think?
What’s riled a lot of people up is the fact that Oscar’s still only 25 and at such a young age, chose money over playing in one of the best leagues in the world. But his career with Chelsea had stagnated of late and he hasn’t enjoyed much success under new boss Antonio Conte. One moment you’re sitting twiddling your thumbs on the bench, the next you have the opportunity to earn quadruple your salary in China where you’ll be a star; Oscar couldn’t say no to that, and nor could Chelsea, who’ll put their earnings from the deal to good use in the January transfer window.
14 Denilson Gabionetta
Pretty soon Chinese football’s going to be taken over by Brazilian players. Teams have been signing up Brazilian footballers of all standards; it’s understandable that they’d want Brazilian internationals, but many also seem content to sign players who have struggled in the lower leagues of world football.
Denilson’s never played for Brazil, nor is he ever likely to do so. He’s spent the majority of his career flitting between different teams, trying to settle and find some form and bring some continuity to his performances. But it’s never really happened. As a striker/winger, his goal-scoring record’s pretty dire, and so in a way, it’s kind of puzzling as to why Hangzhou Greentown acquired his services in 2016. But at least he’s now getting game time; he’s started pretty much every game for the club since his arrival.
13 Graziano Pelle
Striker Pelle’s career really took off in 2012. He started his pro career in 2004, but it was while he was on loan to Dutch side Feyenoord that he began to establish himself as a dominating force up front. He scored 55 goals in 66 appearances for the club – one of the best goal-scoring records in Europe at the time. His impressive spell got PL side Southampton interested, and he continued his good form after coming to England. Around this time, his impressive form hadn’t gone unnoticed, and he was called up to the national team, instantly slotting into the Italian side where he continued netting for fun.
But in the summer of 2016, Shandong Luneng of the CSL made him an offer that he and Southampton couldn’t reuse. His £13.5 million per season salary made him the world’s fifth-highest paid footballer at the time. Glory versus riches? Pelle chose the cash.
Forward Gervinho got Arsene Wenger’s attention when he began netting regularly in France. Wenger brought him over to the PL where he continued his good form and had a pretty decent time of it with Arsenal. Then off he went to Roma for a reported fee of 8 million euros and he became a favorite in Italy. The slower, more relaxed pace of Italian football seemed to suit his playing style, and he became an established member of their side over the next three years. But when newly promoted CSL side, Hebei China Fortune, wanted to bolster their attack and sign the Ivorian international up, he accepted right away.
While many players have beaten around the bush when asked why they’ve moved to China, at least Gervinho’s honest about it. He’s a very good player without being spectacular, and so the €18 million initial fee was too good to refuse, and he’s said as much. No wonder players are snapping up deals to move to China.
11 Gael Kakuta
Like Oscar, Gael Kakuta is still only 25, and like Oscar, Kakuta’s an ex-Chelsea player. But unlike Oscar, Kakuta didn’t enjoy a successful time of it with Chelsea; he was a Chelsea flop, making six appearance in six years for the PL side. Of course, he didn’t spend those six years sitting on the bench. Chelsea loaned him out to anyone who would have him, so he’s gained plenty of experience around Europe since making his debut in 2009.
Kakuta and Chelsea finally parted ways in 2015, but less than a year later, Hebei China Fortune of the CSL came calling. God only knows why because Kakuta hadn’t set the world alight during his brief playing career. He played 24 games in the CSL, but now, due to the new rule changes, he’s found himself out of favor with yet another team. He went to China for a reported fee of £4.6 million, but in the past week, he’s moved yet again, this time back to Spain where he’ll be playing on loan for Deportivo La Coruña.
10 John Obi Mikel
John Obi Mikel is another big name who’s recently been snapped up by the CSL. Mikel was once a midfield stalwart for Chelsea – CSL sides seem to love nabbing Chelsea and ex-Chelsea stars – but his career’s taken a hit since Conte took over at the start of the current season. He spent over a decade at Stamford Bridge, amassing over 350 appearances for the West London side – a firm Chelsea favorite. But when Conte took charge, his playing time was limited. His contract was up at the end of this 2016-17 PL season, and Chelsea decided not to enter into contract negotiations with Mikel and let him go and play elsewhere. So that’s exactly what Mikel has done.
On January 6, 2017, Mikel’s time with Chelsea was officially over, and off he went to join Tianjin TEDA on a free transfer. Although he’s awaiting the start of the CSL season and is yet to play in China, Mikel’s been full of praise for his new club and the CSL, stating Tianjin TEDA is just as good as Chelsea. No doubt he’s looking to get in his new side’s good books to cement his place in the starting line-up for when the new season gets underway.
9 Matheus Leite Nascimento
Brazilian forward Matheus may not be the most well-known name on this list. He’s never played in any of the world’s major leagues, but that hasn’t stopped him enjoying a successful time of it. Matheus has spent the majority of his time playing in Portugal, but most recently enjoyed a successful five-year stint with Ukrainian side FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Evidently, the CSL don’t just go scouting players from PL sides. He came on their radar and agreed to terms to join Shijiazhuang Ever Bright in 2016.
He was supposed to be on his way to Greece, but the deal fell through and off Matheus went to China to join a whole host of his fellow Brazilian compatriots. To date, he’s played 16 times for his new club and has netted on eight occasions – a pretty decent start for Matheus in China.
Here’s yet another Brazilian who’s made China his new home. Carlos Gilberto Nascimento Silva, referred to simply as Gil, joined Shandong Luneng of the CSL in 2016 from Brazilian side, Corinthians.
The move puzzled a lot of people at the time associated with Brazilian football, not because Gil accepted – we can all understand why he did – but because Gil plays at center back. It just doesn’t fit the trend – the spending trends of CSL sides. Most CSL sides think nothing of spending megabucks on top international stars who’ll score a ton of goals and attract more people, fans and players alike, to CSL football. Brazilians have that natural flair on the pitch, but Gil’s a defender and not an attacking one at that. People may have been questioning the move, but Gil certainly wasn’t. It was an opportunity not to be missed and Gil snapped it up.
7 Osman Sow
Osman Sow might not be worth in excess of £60 million like some of the others on this list, but all things considered, his move was massive both for him, Hearts and for Scottish football.
Those of you who only follow the PL will probably be unfamiliar with Sow. He was a part of the Crystal Palace set-up, but his time at the club was miserable; he spent the majority of it injured and in the end, he didn’t even make a single appearance for the club. But that didn’t get him down. Still young and hungry, Sow signed for Heart of Midlothian, and in a couple of years, he had established himself as one of the best strikers in the Scottish Premiership. He had scored 23 times in 52 league appearances for the club and Hearts were eager to hold on to him, but they couldn’t turn down the £1.5 million Henan Jianye were prepared to offer. The CSL side nabbed him on the last day of the transfer window -- that sort of money’s gold dust for a club like Hearts, not to mention a great fee for Sow himself.
CSL sides love signing Chelsea players, but seem to love signing Brazilians even more. So in that respect, Brazilian international Ramires is the perfect player for the CSL. Who was the lucky team? Jiangsu Suning. Incidentally, the club also had former Chelsea player Dan Petrescu as the manager – keeping the Chelsea connection flowing through the CSL.
Ramires made the move to the CSL in 2016, ending his six-year spell at Stamford Bridge, where he achieved plenty of success and individual accolades. However, despite all he did for the club, people associated with Chelsea, and the PL in general, didn’t shy away in voicing their opinions. They weren’t pleased with him trading up Chelsea for Jiangsu Suning, and they let him know. But put yourself in Ramires’ position. He was having a miserable time under Guus Hiddink’s leadership. He was banished to the reserves most of the time and wasn’t getting any time on the pitch. Still in his 20s and looking to revive his career, a CSL club comes calling offering him £25 million. What would you do? Continue warming the reserves bench or take the money or go off to China where you’ll be revered as a hero? Ramires chose the latter and he hasn’t looked back since.
5 Jackson Martinez
Colombian international Jackson Martinez may not have achieved any huge success playing in the big leagues of world football, but that didn’t put Guangzhou Evergrande off from seeking him out and making an offer.
Occasionally, you find little gems dotted around different leagues, and Martinez is one of these gems. He’s an established pro for his national side, which is also where he began his career, scoring goals for Independiente Medellín. His abilities up front caught the attention of Mexican side, Chiapas. Off he went to Mexico where he continued his impressive form, enjoying a stellar season in front of goal. But Porto’s where he made his name and started getting recognition around the world. He amassed an impressive goal tally of 94 goals in 143 appearances, but for some reason Porto allowed him to go to Atletico Madrid. It was a poor move and Martinez only played 22 games for the Spanish side. But his feats with Porto and his previous South American clubs didn’t go unnoticed by those in the CSL.
Less than a year after going to Spain, he signed for Guangzhou Evergrande for a huge fee of €42 million, which was a transfer fee record for an Asian team at the time.
4 Alex Teixeira
I’ve just mentioned Martinez and how his transfer fee shattered records. Well, his record was short-lived; it only lasted for a couple of days because then Jiangsu Suning came along and shelled out a massive €50 million for Alex Teixeira.
Alex was an unknown entity to a lot of the football world in 2016 before his big-money move to China thrust him into the limelight. However, the Brazilian attacking midfielder – yes, yet another Brazilian on this list who got signed up in China – was making waves in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk, and had been for six years. For a midfielder, his goal-scoring record was remarkable – a total of 89 goals in 222 games – but it was in his last season that he really began to make some headway. He netted 26 times in 25 appearances, putting him among some of the top strikers in Europe – and he was a midfielder! Knowing this, you can all probably appreciate why Jiangsu Suning was prepared to pay €50 million for Alex.
3 Ezequiel Lavezzi
The Argentinian forward/winger rose to fame with Napoli in 2007. He stayed for five years before making the trip to France and playing for Paris Saint-Germain. The French side had just come into serious money due to a takeover by Qatar Sports Investments and was eager to get some big players on board to bolster the club’s reputation in world football. Lavezzi was a part of that influx of players and he didn’t disappoint. After 161 appearances for PSG, he had established himself as a dominating force in Europe, and so naturally, the new big boys on the block – teams in the CSL – took an interest.
It was Hebei China Fortune who prevailed in signing Lavezzi for a humungous £20.8m – that’s a £400,000 a week contract if you break it down and add in all the little incentives, add-ons and possible bonuses.
Givanildo Vieira de Sousa – commonly known as Hulk – is an iconic player in world football. He’s a big bullish striker earning him the nickname "Hulk," which he’s embraced.
For such a prolific striker who’s well-known throughout world football, Hulk’s career hasn’t followed the conventional path. Born in Brazil, he had a brief stint with Brazilian side Vitória before going to Japan for three years. He then moved to Porto before being signed by the Russian side, Zenit Saint Petersburg, which is where he really began to shine.
After a successful stint in Europe, Hulk became one of the first big-money movers to the CSL in 2016. At the time, his €55.8 million price tag was an Asian football record; his move started a trend of big-money transfers to China – plenty more have now followed suit.
1 Carlos Tevez
Recently, it’s all been about Oscar and Carlos Tevez; these are the two recent movers to the CSL and it’s got world football buzzing.
Unlike Oscar, Carlos Tevez’s best years are behind him. He’s now 32 and is winding down on a very successful playing career during which he’d become known as one of the best strikers in world football. People began to really take notice when Tevez made the move to the PL. He helped West Ham escape a relegation battle before joining Man United. When their rivals, Man City, came into money, he became one of a host of signings for the club, and he swapped a red shirt for a blue one, at the time breaking the British Transfer record.
Tevez continued his good form with Juventus in Italy before going back to his native Argentina, where a lot of us thought he’d remain for the rest of his playing days. But when Shanghai Shenhua offered Tevez a £615,000 a week deal, he just couldn’t say no. He’s now the highest paid player in the world; he heads a list that also features a number of other CSL signings.