For more than a century now, Europe and South America have been the world's soccer strongholds; creating the best players and having the highest quality and most competitive leagues. This still largely remains the case, but in recent times, other regions of the globe have made far greater progress on this front than ever before. In North America and the Middle East a lot of effort and resources have been put into growing the game.
Almost entirely out of the blue however, a new soccer superpower appears to be emerging, the Chinese Super League. With a national team currently languishing in 93rd in FIFA's world rankings, having only ever qualified for one World Cup where they lost every game, it is fair to say the Chinese have tasted little success in the world's most popular sport. The CSL's spending in 2016 currently totals $288 million, more than even the Premier League, and that figure is still rising.
The vast amounts of money being thrown about in China has unsurprisingly attracted a number of high-profile players and managers. The league's managers include the likes of former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson and former Brazil World Cup winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. This is a list of the most talented and well-known players currently plying their trade in the CSL. Here are the top 20 soccer stars you didn't know were playing in the Chinese Super League:
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19 Walter Montillo
Capped six times by Argentina between 2011 and 2013, Walter Montillo is a gifted attacking midfielder. Whilst playing for Cruzeiro in Brazil, Montillo was linked with a string of European clubs, before eventually joining Santos. The talented playmaker was on the move once again in 2014, this time to China. Chinese Super League side Shangdong Luneng forked out $9 million to get their man, who has since played 43 games and scored 6 goals for the Jinan-based outfit.
The 25-year-old striker appeared to have a bright future ahead of him in Europe before China came calling in 2015. The dominant forward came through the ranks at Atletico Mineiro, before being snapped up by Porto. He played 26 games for Porto, scoring 9 goals, and a further 15 times for Porto's B team, in which he scored 3. He won two caps for Brazil in 2011, aged 20, but his stock had fallen somewhat by 2015, when he made his move to China. Kleber signed a two-and-a-half year deal with Beijing Guoan FC, where he has played seven games but failed to find the back of the net.
17 Diego Tardelli
Another man who has been capped by Brazil, Diego Tardelli was touted for greatness during his time with Atletico Mineiro. With dazzling footwork and a natural eye for goal, Tardelli scored 73 goals in 114 games for the Brazilian club, playing as both a forward and as an attacking midfielder. Tardelli has made a habit of following the money, first joining Anzhi, then heading to Qatar, and finally moving to China in January 2015. He has scored 6 goals in 19 games in China, and looks unlikely to add to his tally of 14 caps for Brazil anytime soon.
16 Gael Kakuta
Former Chelsea prodigy Gael Kakuta represented France at every level between under-16s and under-21s, but the fact the winger is yet to win a full cap for his country shows that his career has not quite developed as many hoped it would. In six years, Kakuta played only six league games for Chelsea, and was loaned out six times. After leaving the club, he joined Sevilla, but after just two games, China offered Kakuta an alternative option. The Frenchman joined Hebei China Fortune last week, becoming the club's fifth non-Chinese player.
Although far from universally known, Jucilei is a very talented footballer. The Brazilian kick-started his career with Corinthians, and has been highly regarded as a complete midfield player ever since. Capable of sitting deep or pushing forward and creating things, the twice capped midfielder played in Europe for Anzhi, before heading to Abu Dhabi, and in June 2015, China. Jucilei has made 13 appearances for Shandong Luneng, where he lines up alongside fellow South Americans who made this list in Walter Montillo and Diego Tardelli.
14 Ruben Micael
With a list of former employers which includes Porto, Atletico Madrid and Braga, as well as having 16 caps for Portugal to his name, Ruben Micael is clearly a player of considerable pedigree. The midfielder made his Portugal debut in 2011 while playing for Porto, and has been in and out of the national teams squad ever since. The Europa League winner swapped Portugal for China in 2015, when he moved from Braga to Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, where he has since played 11 games, scoring one goal.
13 Fredy Montero
Former Seattle Sounders star Fredy Montero made a big impression in the MLS, scoring 25 goals in 63 games, making the MLS All-Star team in consecutive seasons. Still in his early 20s, the forward joined Sporting Lisbon, where he attempted to have a crack at a career in Europe. 14 goals from 51 games represented a decent return for the man who made his international debut at the age of 19, but after just two seasons, he was on the move again. CSL side Tianjin Teda signed Montero on February 6th 2016.
12 Stephane Mbia
Cameroon captain Stephane Mbia has played regularly in Ligue 1, the Premier League and La Liga, but it is now in the Chinese Super League that the defensive midfielder struts his stuff. Mbia, who has won 67 caps for his country including appearances at two World Cups and two African Cup of Nation's, won the Ligue 1 title with Marseille and won the Europa League twice with Sevilla. Despite having only moved to Turkey in 2015, Mbia joined Hebei China Fortune in 2016, who were only promoted from China's second tier last season.
11 Dario Conca
At one time the third highest paid player in world football, behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Dario Conca is no longer one of the best paid players in the world, but he is still making a small fortune in China with Shanghai SIPG. It is the Argentine's second stint in the CSL, having formerly played for Guangzhou Evergrande, where he scored 33 goals in 65 games from attacking midfield. Since joining Shanghai in 2015, Conca has continued his impressive form, and currently has 9 goals to his name from 29 games for his new club.
10 Renato Augusto
Renato Augusto played more than 100 games in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen, and has won a total of eight trophies in Brazil, during his time with Flamengo and Corinthians. His form at Leverkusen during the early 2010's saw him win 5 caps for Brazil and attract the interest of Manchester City, but the reported fee of $22 million wasn't enough to turn Leverkusen's head. After returning to Brazil with Corinthians, Augusto moved to China in January 2016, and the 27-year-old recently told the press that he hopes the move doesn't spell the end of his international career with Brazil.
Former Manchester City striker Jo had a miserable time in the Premier League, scoring only 6 goals from 58 games with Man City and on-loan at Everton. He recovered his career back in Brazil though, particularly with Atletico Mineiro, even doing enough to convince Luiz Felipe Scolari to include him in his squad for the 2014 World Cup. Jo, like Scolari, is now plying his trade in China. The tall forward joined Jiangsu Suning in January this year after seven months playing in Dubai.
8 Demba Ba
Unlike Jo, Demba Ba was very much a hit in the Premier League. With West Ham, Newcastle and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea, Ba scored prolifically and earned numerous plaudits for his attacking work. Powerful and potent, Ba scored 50 goals in 122 games in England, before leaving Chelsea for Besiktas in 2014. The Senegalese international has been linked with a move back to the Premier League, his former team West Ham the most likely suitors, but joined Shanghai Shenhua in 2015, where he has since scored 6 goals in 11 games.
Brazilian midfielder Paulinho didn't quite have the impact many expected him to in the Premier League with Tottenham, where he played 67 games in two seasons but failed to impress most people. Undoubtedly talented, Paulinho looked an excellent player for Corinthians and has won 32 caps for Brazil, scoring five goals. Mauricio Pochettino decided that the midfielder wasn't in his plans in the summer of 2015, and Paulinho became one of the CSL's first big money moves, joining Guangzhou Evergrande for a fee just shy of $15 million. Since the move, Paulinho has played 22 games, scored 5 goals and won both the Chinese Super League and the AFC Champions League.
Former Arsenal and Lille winger Gervinho has had a mixed career. Considered a potential great of world football whilst with Lille between the ages of 22 and 24, where he scored 36 goals in 93 games, Gervinho got his big move in 2011, joining Arsenal. His explosive pace didn't seem to be twinned with effective technique or end product in the Premier League, but after joining Roma, the Ivorian breathed new life into his career. Despite his return to form, aged 28, and being at one of the biggest teams in Italy, Gervinho requested a transfer this January and joined Hebei China Fortune in a $17 million move.
5 Tim Cahill
Aged 36, Tim Cahill is certainly past his prime, but the determined Australian is still a very capable footballer, and reminded everyone that much was true at the 2014 World Cup. Deployed in either midfield or as a forward, Cahill is hard working and renowned for his exceptional heading ability for a player under 6 feet tall. Cahill spent 15 years of his career in England, and is best remembered for his 8 years at Everton in the Premier League, before joining the New York Red Bulls.
The top scorer in the history of the Australian national team, Cahill joined Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua in March 2015, where he has since played 32 games and scored 12 goals. Cahill has openly criticized the free spending made by CSL clubs during 2016.
5. Fredy Guarin
Coming in the midst of a number of high-profile deals seeing players head to the CSL, the transfer of Fredy Guarin went somewhat under the radar. The Colombian international ended a four-year stint at Inter Milan on the 26th of January 2016, sealing a $12.5 million move to Shanghai Shenhua FC which will see him link up with the likes of Tim Cahill and Demba Ba, as well as his fellow compatriot and club captain Giovanni Moreno. Aged 29, Guarin had spent the last decade playing in Europe with Saint-Etienne, Porto and Inter Milan, amassing 58 caps for Colombia in the process.
4 Asamoah Gyan
Some players moves to China have come as a surprise to many, swapping more competitive and illustrious leagues for the newly-found riches of China. Asamoah Gyan was not one of these players. Formerly of Rennes and Sunderland, the man who starred at the 2010 World Cup joined UAE outfit Al Ain FC back in 2011, a league where he scored 90 goals in 74 games, showing the lack of quality there, but signed a deal worth $168,000. It made Gyan one of the best paid players in the world at the time, but that figure is dwarfed by his new contract with Shanghai SIPG, worth an eye-watering $327,000 a week. The Ghanaian has scored 10 goals in 15 games since making the move to China in 2015.
Arguably the first transfer by a CSL side which made people sit up and take note. Tireless midfielder Ramires had been at Chelsea for 6 years, played 246 games and won everything, from league titles to Champions League's. Still aged only 28, when it emerged that Ramires' potential suitors were in China, more than a few were a little shocked. Ultimately, Chelsea got an excellent deal, receiving $36 million for what was essentially a squad of players. Ramires, who has won over 50 caps for Brazil, joined Jiangsu Suning FC on January 27th 2016, completing a trio of Brazilians at the club.
2 Jackson Martinez
Atletico Madrid are renowned for creating world class strikers, selling them for huge profits and then unearthing new gems. With Jackson Martinez, they simply skipped the first step. Having signed the striker from Porto in the summer for $40 million, the Colombian had managed a fairly poor return of only 3 goals in 22 games by January, when a bid came in of $48 million. Atletico took their $8 million profit in six months and ran, for a striker who threatened to be something of a flop. Guangzhou Evergrande had their man, although not on the cheap, and he signed on the dotted on line of February 3rd 2016.
1 Alex Teixeira
The most high-profile player and high-profile transfer to the Chinese Super League has to be Alex Teixeira. Setting an Asian record transfer fee which was broken no fewer than three times in a week, first by Ramires, then Martinez, and eventually smashed by Teixeira. The Brazilian attacking midfielder cost Jiangsu Suning an incredible $57 million to prize him away from Shakhtar Donetsk, something a whole host of European clubs, including Chelsea and Liverpool, had failed to do.
Ranking among the 25 most expensive transfers in history, the two Premier League clubs shied away from such a hefty price tag for the uncapped 26-year-old, and understandably so. The fact that a player who had been actively pursued by top Premier League teams in his prime but opted to go to China instead was viewed as a power-swing within the game by many. Teixeira himself expressed a disappointment at not securing a dream move to England's top tier but will link up with compatriots Ramires and Jo at Jiangsu.
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