The Champions League final hero penned a mammoth contract with Zhu Jun's Shanghai Shenhua this week, but has China really got the financial might to keep signing top stars?
By Ben Somerford | Asian Football Editor
Almost 12 months ago people were talking about Chinese football's potential when Dario Conca turned more than a few heads by becoming one of the world's highest-paid players by inking a deal with the unheralded Guangzhou Evergrande. Fast forward to now, Nicolas Anelka, Jean Tigana, Marcello Lippi and Lucas Barrios are some of the big names to follow suit.
However, people are only starting to take the Chinese Super League (CSL) seriously following this week's news that 2011-12 Uefa Champions League final hero Didier Drogba has joined the party and signed a bumper contract with big-spenders Shanghai Shenhua.
Not long ago, the average football fan would seldom have heard about the CSL beyond the odd story of corruption. Nowadays, it seems huge money is being spent to bring massive names to the Far East and anyone with an ounce of talent is being linked with the CSL, with stories of Chinese interest popping up daily in European dailies.
In the past month the likes of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Ronaldinho, Amauri, Jimmy Bullard, Danijel Pranjic and Daniele De Rossi have all been linked with Chinese clubs. Baseless rumours or not, it's a sign of the growing reputation of Chinese football and the financial might these clubs are perceived to have. But it's worth asking are these perceptions necessarily true or is this just a massive generalisation?
|"In the past month the likes of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Ronaldinho, Amauri, Jimmy Bullard, Danijel Pranjic and Daniele De Rossi have all been linked with Chinese clubs"|
Indeed, while the aforementioned names all joined Chinese clubs on huge money, they all joined the same two clubs: Shanghai Shenhua and Guangzhou Evergrande. The pair are owned by wealthy owners with their own agendas; Evergrande Real Estate Group chairman Xu Jiayin and online gaming company The Nine City boss Zhu Jun. Their wealth, and willingness to spend on their football teams, has few peers in China at this stage.
When Shenhua signed Anelka on a contract believed to be worth €10.6million per annum, he became the world's third highest paid player ever, but that was trumped this week when Drogba joined on a deal reportedly worth just over €270,000 per week, which equates to roughly €14.15m annually.
Lippi's lucrative €10m per season deal at Guangzhou is the third highest salary ever paid to a coach. Meanwhile, Evergrande paid a Chinese record transfer fee of €8.5m for Borussia Dortmund's Barrios - breaking the previous mark for Conca. For those playing at home, Barrios will earn a handy €6.7m per season too.
Clearly, their desire to bring talent to China is proving expensive. Pre-existing attitudes towards the CSL have arguably forced prices up. However, this spending is also having a ripple effect on other clubs.
Firstly, foreign footballers pondering a move to China are now expecting better salaries, forcing roster budgets up which spells bad news for those clubs unwilling to spend. Secondly, those with the capability to spend, such as R&F Properties-owned Guangzhou Fuli or Kweichow Moutai-owned Guizhou Renhe, are being forced to do so in order to compete for the title.
|"Some may argue Shenhua owner Zhu Jun's chief motive isn't necessarily the title, but rather political favour, which perhaps explains their contrasting fortunes"|
Indeed, while Shenhua's lavish purchases haven't brought the desired results - with the team currently hovering just above the drop zone in 12th - Evergrande raced to the title last season, losing only once in the process, and are leading the way this term, whilst qualifying for the AFC Champions League quarter-finals. Their strategy of investing in their squad has clearly paid off.
However some may argue Shenhua owner Zhu Jun's chief motive isn't necessarily the title, but rather political favour, which perhaps explains their contrasting fortunes.
Fuli, who are currently third and five points behind the leaders, appear to be following Evergrande's method, as this week they have been linked with Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni. The club's deputy director Lu Yi has said the deal, reportedly worth €6m, was "99 per cent done". This isn't an ageing big name looking for one last pay cheque, this is a 29-year-old international who scored 17 goals in the Premier League last term for Blackburn Rovers.
However, despite all the speculation, many Chinese clubs are still reluctant to join the spending bonanza despite the nation's rising wealth. The money being splashed out is ridiculously excessive and it's not yet a proven long-term formula despite Evergrande's recent success.
Shenhua's struggles, along with 15th-placed Shandong Luneng, who reportedly have the third highest squad budget in the league, indicate money isn't everything in Chinese football just yet. However, if Evergrande's domination continues, surely it won't take long for the rest to follow suit and the CSL to start pinching a few more stars from Europe.