We are living in the age of the Chinese boom. The domestic Asian market is flush with billionaire cash and the playboys have come out of the woodwork to buy some new fancy toys. No other league on the planet has been able to match the dollars being put in front of these soccer players. English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A – all blown out of the water.
It’s an influx that started and stopped a few years ago until the cash suddenly dried up. Didier Drogba and Tim Cahill came but the biggest names didn’t follow suit. Now in the winter transfer window of 2015/16, the chequebook has come out big time. The Chinese government is backing the league with money, building towards the goal of the Chinese national team winning the FIFA World Cup within 24 years.
Current internationals Ezequiel Lavezzi, Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Freddy Guarin, Paulinho and Stephane Mbia have arrived in the communist republic not to cash an early retirement account, but to show off their skills still at the peak of their powers. With Chinese Super League (CSL) franchises only limited to a handful of imports, the premium on quality cuts off the little avenue of pleasure players 35 years or older were looking forward to.
The league also participates in the Asian version of the UEFA Champions League, known simply as the Asian Champions League. Here CSL clubs can only name 3 foreign imports outside of Chinese players, increasing the need for elite talent to fill those slots. Positions like goalkeeper, fullback and defense are all filled by Chinese footballers, leaving spots like creative midfield, wing and center forward up to the overseas superstars. Nothing fills stadiums and gets people on television watching like a goal scorer with flair.
This new financial dominance has completely blindsided Europe, to the point where influential people in the game doubt the hierarchy of the sport in the near future. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes China could usurp the EPL by their spending power and the axis of power might move away from Europe. Only time will tell if that eventuates but what cannot be argued is that China’s first salvo has been swift and comprehensive.
The CSL is not playing around here – they are putting big dollars on the table for the best soccer talent the world has to offer. With the current window set to close by the start of March, these are the top 25 players the league will be targeting.
25. Radamel Falcao
Such has been the decline of the Colombian international, maybe this deal seems the most unlikely given his current status. At one stage the striker had scored 41 in 51 games for Porto, 52 in 68 for Atletico Madrid and 11 in 20 during a short stay in Monaco. But after two disastrous seasons with Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, the 30-year old has been written off. Falcao has been linked with the MLS but is still an incredibly marketable footballer who, if he can tap into that amazing goal scoring form, could be a massive hit in China.
24 Shinji Kagawa
The reason this transfer would be so appealing to CSL franchises is pretty simple – the Asian Champions League has a 3 plus 1 rule. In other words, clubs are allowed 3 foreign imports plus a marquee Asian player outside of the native country. The Japanese international has struggled a bit since coming back to Borussia Dortmund from a poor spell at Manchester United, but at 26 he is arguably in the top 3 Asian players in world football right now.
23 Bruno Soriano
269 appearances in La Liga is a remarkable achievement. 31-year old midfield maestro Bruno Soriano has only managed 6 games for the Spanish national team, but that is more an indication of the strength of the squad and competition for places than anything else. Bruno’s passing ability and skill to dictate play in the middle of the park would be elevate any CSL side immediately.
22 Yacine Brahimi
Any player who develops a reputation for scoring stunning goals more than 30 yards out is worth watching. This is very much for the case for Algerian international Yacine Brahimi, with the FC Porto player taking his game to the next level in Portugal after moving from Granada in 2014. At 26 he’s the perfect age to come along and has experience winning domestic trophies in Europe. What more do you want?
21 Franck Ribery
While we mentioned that Falcao is an incredibly marketable star, Ribery might not be utilized as such any time soon. The French international has an unfortunate disposition, but makes up for it with his silky dribbling skills, assist record and goal scoring ability from the left wing. The Bayern Munich playmaker is 32 and won all there is to win in European football, so the CSL might be considered a new “challenge.”
20 Ever Banega
The Argentine city Rosario produces some great street-smart footballers. 27-year old Ever Banega is a product of that upbringing as the Sevilla playmaker is one of the key cogs in the La Liga outfits charge towards cup glory. Not the most dynamic athlete going around in Europe, but the good news is that China is not a physically taxing league to play in. China loves a South American with a bit of flair and out-of-the-box creativity and Banega has all of that.
19 Andriy Yarmolenko
This is an interesting one. 26-year old Ukrainian international Andriy Yarmolenko is one of the hottest prospects in Europe right now and has been heavily linked with a move to Arsenal in the summer transfer window. But with the financial might of China bearing down, they can’t afford to wait much longer. He has a stunning record of 76 goals in 187 games for his club Dynamo Kyiv and 22 in 55 for the Ukraine national team. An absolute star at the top of his game.
18 Diego Costa
Now that Jose Mourinho is out of the way, Diego Costa has no one to blame or feud with off the field. The Brazilian born Spanish striker thrives off conflict, getting involved in scuffles and unnecessary fights that put his team under pressure but when he’s fit and hungry, there are few better marksmen in the sport. Chelsea would probably like to sell depending on who the new coach is and with an agent that enjoys cashing in a move for his client, this could be a real possibility.
17 Aritz Aduriz
Forget what we said earlier about 35-year olds – Artiz Aduriz is the exception to the rule. The Basque striker, since moving to Athletic Bilbao, has had an incredible strike rate of 61 goals in 118 starts for the red and white striped Spanish team. His amazing volley in the Europa League tie with Marseille illustrates how he’s aging like a fine wine and outside of Messi, Suarez, Neymar and Ronaldo – Aduriz is the next best in La Liga. It has taken him a while to get this good, but it was worth the wait!
16 Fernando Torres
Just as the Chinese boom was reaching its peak last month, Fernando Torres’ agent came out to say that his client was recently offered the chance to become the highest paid sportsman in the world. We wonder where such an offer could have come from? This tabled bid from the CSL shows that they want to Atletico Madrid striker bad and because it was turned down this time, don’t think that the interest will go away anytime soon.
15 Pablo Piatti
South American? Check. Still fairly young? Check. Lots of flair? Check. Diminutive Argentine winger Pablo Piatti is small in stature but big in the soccer world. The 26-year old doesn’t have a goal scoring record for Valencia that stands out at all, but the speed and creativity he offers coming in off the wing is incredibly valuable. The CSL is packed with small Chinese players, yet Piatti would be a true giant among men.
14 Adrian Ramos
Colombian striker Adrian Ramos doesn’t come with the reputation or pedigree that the likes of Torres, Falcao or Martinez do, but the 30-year old would love the chance to try his wears against Chinese defenders. The Borussia Dortmund player isn’t getting the game time he would want and with only a few years left playing the sport at the top level, the chance to cash in at the CSL is becoming less likely the longer his career drags out.
13 Nicolas Gaitan
Assists, crosses, dead ball specialist – Argentine midfielder Nicolas Gaitan has all the attributes a CSL owner would want in a foreign import. At 27 the Benfica playmaker has experience winning domestic trophies in Portugal and even cracking the Argentine national team for a dozen appearances. Another move into Europe seems unlikely now, so China would appear to be a suitable destination.
12 Santi Cazorla
Arsenal fans love the diminutive Spaniard and they would hate to see him go. The midfielder has been linked with a move back to La Liga in the last couple of windows and battling the strains of the English Premier League has taken a toll on his body. The creative genius is great on both right and left feet, enjoys a penalty and is a crowd pleaser. Would take a lot of money to sway him away from North London but as far as the CSL is concerned, money is no object.
Givandildo Vieira de Sousa, or “Hulk” to his friends, is a colossus of a soccer player. He earned the nickname through his likeness to the television and movie character due to his sizeable build and devastating efficiency on the park. That left foot is a weapon, smashing in goals from long range at will coming in off the right wing. At 29 the Zenit Saint Petersburg player is still a Brazilian international and would be in good company with the likes of Ramires, Paulinho and Alex Teixeira already established in the country. Before we know it the whole national team will be based out of China.
10 Samir Nasri
Season 2015/16 has been one to forget for the rebel playmaker. Former French international Samir Nasri had a very public feud with the national coach and since a long injury lay off, has been out of favor at Manchester City. Nasri loves everything involved with being a professional soccer player other than actually playing the game – the lifestyle, the fashion, the cars, the bling. He could write his own cheque and being a flashy winger/number 10 is the ideal criteria to be a foreign import in the CSL.
9 Kevin Mirallas
Everton manager Roberto Martinez is adamant his club does not sell because they have to. The Liverpool outfit rebuffed offers for defender John Stones to rivals Chelsea in the summer window but the Chinese money might be something else to contend with. Belgium international Mirallas is a solid squad member, yet has been looking to move away from Goodison Park for the last season or two. Mirallas is quite versatile, and can play number 10 or either wing.
8 Moussa Sissoko
Newcastle United fans are fed up with being a selling club, seeing their best players moved on as soon as an offer comes in higher than what they originally paid for them. Yet with the arrival of Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, maybe the strategy is changing. French midfielder Moussa Sissoko blows hot and cold with his performances and is one of those guilty of looking to transfer out of St. James’ Park. His athleticism is off the charts and Chinese defenders would have a huge task trying to tackle him.
7 Mario Balotelli
The king of the soccer bad boys, Italian striker Mario Balotelli has seen his career nosedive off a cliff since leaving AC Milan the first time to head to Liverpool. He divides opinion like few others, having undeniable talent which he mostly showcases for the Italian national team more than he does at club level. At 25 a move to the CSL would be seen as a cop out, but how can you rationalize with that given the age and status of players heading there now? With all the baggage that comes with Super Mario on the continent, a change to China where he would be loved and adored could be the right thing for him, and his bank account!
6 Diafra Sakho
Injury is the only issue here. The Senegalese international striker was in red hot form before a set back cruelled his progress with West Ham United in the EPL. Sakho flew under the radar when he arrived from French outfit Metz in 2014 and under coach Slaven Bilic, Sakho thrived in the front line and always looked a threat on goal. The East London club is blessed with depth up front in Andy Carroll, Michail Antonio, Enner Valencia, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses. The Hammers might not be able to refuse a big offer with those options.
5 Odion Ighalo
Once CSL clubs started outbidding and beating rich clubs in England, Spain and Italy for the best talent, players knew the game had changed. This is why no on would be surprised if a club like Manchester United or Chelsea saw a key target like Odion Ighalo turn up in China rather than the EPL. The Watford striker has an incredible 34 goals in 61 starts for the Hornets and at 26 he is only getting better. The Nigerian has hinted in the press that he wants to fulfil his ambition of playing for a big European club, so that might be an issue.
4 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The man so good his first name is a verb to achieving something amazing. The Swedish striker is winding down his contract with PSG and will be free to move where he pleases come June. At 34 some might think he is passed his prime, but Zlatan’s prime is far superior to what most footballers reach. Since he arrived in Paris in 2012 at the age of 30, he’s scored 98 goals in 112 games. He is one of the legends of the game and China would be lucky to have him. Anyone would to be honest.
3 Arjen Robben
Arjen Robben is the best one-dimensional soccer player the sport has ever seen. Everyone knows what he does and what he will do. The Dutch winger picks the ball up on the right wing, dribbles it a bit, then cuts inside off his left foot. Somehow it works every single time. At 32 he’s won the Champions League and multiple league titles with Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. After 7 years in Germany he might want a change.
2 Yaya Toure
If Yaya Toure is still a Manchester City player come August, then the world will have gone mad. The 32-year old Ivorian superstar came out with a spectacular rant against incoming coach Pep Guardiola, saying that anybody could have coached his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams to the success they achieved under his watch. With his agent making public comments by the week, the box-to-box midfielder will be leaving the EPL for all intensive purposes. The question is – who wants him more?
1 Wayne Rooney
Another big name set to leave Manchester in the summer should be Wayne Rooney. The 30-year old England skipper is the record scorer for his country and with 177 goals in 362 games at Old Trafford, Rooney has achieved all he can. And while 30 might not sound old by soccer standards, he started in the EPL at the tender age of 16 so in reality he is older than the passport would indicate. China is already making moves and with the worst kept secret in the sport surrounding the impending arrival of Jose Mourinho to United, Rooney’s sale could be used to fund a rebuilding process for the Red Devils.