By Ben Somerford
Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande made quite the splash this week when they signed Fluminense's Argentine midfielder Dario Conca to a deal reportedly worth £23.6 million over two and a half years, making him the world's third-highest paid player behind superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pretty impressive for a footballer who is nearing his thirties and has never been capped by his country, nor played in Europe.
Admittedly, there is some uncertainty about the finer details of the agreement, but it is still massive money. Conca's Fluminense boss Abel Braga made that clear when he said: “This offer will put him in the top 10 highest-paid players in the world.”
Well, for starters, this is a club from China's third-largest city with an urban population of some 12 million. The city itself is a key transport hub in China's south, just 100-odd kilometres north of Hong Kong and Macau.
As for the club, Guangzhou Evergrande are the current leaders of China's Super League, holding a seven-point advantage from second-placed Beijing Guoan after 14 matches in the 30-game campaign. They look certainties to, at least, qualify for the 2012 AFC Champions League and are the clear favourites for the 2011 title.
Not bad for a club that 12 months ago were in China's second-tier League One.
However, their rapid rise isn't down to luck, rather the influence of the deep pockets of the club's wealthy owners Evergrande Real Estate Group (hence the latter half of the club's name), who took over following their relegation in 2009. Evergrande are one of the biggest real estate companies in China and their chairman Xu Jiayin is one of the richest men in the country, too, ranked 200 in the 2011 Forbes Global Wealthiest List.
If you know much about world economics, you'd realise property is big business right now in China and that's beginning to have an effect on football, with more investment from companies such as Evergrande.
Earlier this week, real estate giants Dalian Wanda committed to a £47m sponsorship deal with the Chinese Football Association, which would underwrite several projects. It's a colossal agreement that has some people talking about a new beginning for Chinese football, the game's sleeping giant.
Whatever the case, the point is the real estate industry holds major power in the nation and there's few better examples of that than Guangzhou Evergrande's current position, which most attribute to their financial might.
|“I'm so thrilled and happy to have received such an important offer."
- Guangzhou's £8.9m signing Dario Conca
Soon after being relegated in 2009 following a match-fixing scandal, Evergrande assumed control and began investing in the squad, luring several high-profile additions including former English Premier League midfielder Zheng Zhi as well as Korean coach Lee Jang-Soo, who had previously all but guided Beijing Guoan to the Chinese title in 2009 before being sacked late in the campaign after a squabble with directors.
If promotion was ever in doubt, a club-record £2.2m was spent on Brazilian striker Muriqui midway through the campaign, before he added 13 goals in 14 games to help Guangzhou finish League One champions.
However, Evergrande's investment didn't end with promotion. In February, they set a new Chinese transfer record of £2.8m on Brazilian striker Cleo, who had only a few months earlier scored in the Uefa Champions League against Arsenal. Ex-Premier League midfielder Cho Won-Hee and South American duo Paulao and Renato Caja would follow soon after.
As you'd expect, the team are flying atop the Super League with a substantial buffer, but the ambition clearly doesn't stop there, following the news of Conca's signing, for another unprecedented fee of £8.9m.
Conca, who won the Brazilian Serie A Best Player award for 2010, is expected to make Guangzhou quite the force and it's hard to see anyone stopping them their march towards the title, with the AFC Champions League also in the club's sights.
Financial investment in football clubs isn't anything new in China, but transfer fees and salaries of this size are. Opinions are split on whether Evergrande are good for the game.
However, we've seen this happen before in Europe, with Russian oligarchs and oil-rich Middle East investors. Financial power has changed the sport there and it seems it's inevitable the same will occur now in China.