As China looks to upset football’s world order, January transfer splurge could be just the start

Super League teams have spent more money than anyone, even the mega-rich English Premier League

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 January, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 9:34am

Chelsea fans reacted with bemused acceptance to the news last week that midfielder Ramires was leaving for China for £25 million (HK$280 million). The 28-year-old Brazilian signed a new four-year deal in October last year and was a useful squad member. But while occasionally delivering the sensational, such as his chip against Barcelona to help send the club into the Champions League final, he was capable of a first touch so bad that his second was a bicycle kick.

The money offered by Jiangsu – Ramires cost Chelsea £8 million less from Benfica in 2010 – was far too good to reject. The player, too, will be receiving a pay packet far in excess of whatever ridiculous sum he was already on.

He’s not the only player planning a Scrooge McDuck-style vault to house the renminbi coming his way. Chinese Super League teams are gearing up for the start of the new season in March, and have spent more money in this transfer window – which doesn’t close for another month – than anyone else.

Roma supporters have been scratching their heads at getting shot of the frequently hapless Ivorian striker Gervinho for 18 million to Hebei, more than twice what they paid Arsenal for him in 2013. Internazionale fans felt much the same as Colombian Fredy Guarin packed his bags for Shanghai Shenhua.These are just the high-profile moves from Europe. Brazil has been plundered, with Corinthians playmaker Renato turning down a return to the Bundesliga for Beijing Guoan. “There was a very good offer from Germany, three times more than I make here at Corinthians,” he said. “But then came an offer I couldn’t refuse.” calculated that China has spent 136.25 million (HK$1.1 billion) on new players in January, nearly 20 million more than the English Premier League and more than twice Italy’s Serie A (57 million). China’s second tier, where several of Hong Kong’s naturalised international players have secured lucrative deals, was fourth on the list with 43 million, more than the Bundesliga (36 million).

It’s another example of how China’s new-found determination to become a footballing superpower – President Xi Jinping has said, “make it so” and businesses are rushing to get in his good books – seems set to upset football’s established order.

Tony Rallis, an Australian agent, took his client Trent Sainsbury from mid-table Dutch club PEC Zwolle to join Ramires in Jiangsu. He was staggered by plans for the next 20 years shown to him by Chinese football insiders.

“It’s phenomenal,” he told me. “I’ve completed a few transfers to the Premier League, some to the Middle East ... China is now at the stage where they’re not far off the top of the tree. If what I’m hearing is correct as far as their plans to become a dominant force, it’s a game-changer.”

Sainsbury, 24, is a solid defender beginning to establish himself with Australia. Another good season in the Netherlands, or an impressive international tournament, might have seen him earn a decent move to one of Europe’s top leagues. But a US$10 million deal (including transfer fee) over three years, with tax-free wages, was a no-brainer.

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” says Rallis of other players eager to get a piece of the action. “When Chinese like anything, whether it’s Australian vineyards or footballers, they like the best,” he adds. “If players like Trent, and James Troisi [who has just signed for Liaoning Whowin] prove to be as successful as they can be, I expect a lot more to follow.”

I’ve completed a few transfers to the Premier League, some to the Middle East ... China is now at the stage where they’re not far off the top of the tree
Agent Tony Rallis

Rallis believes that the traffic won’t just be one-way, as he expects an A-League club soon to be bought by China, partly with the aim of developing young Chinese players in Australia.

We saw last week how such moves can rub locals up the wrong way, after Chinese company Ledman’s plan to introduce “mandatory” Chinese players for clubs in the Portuguese second division under their new sponsorship deal provoked outcry. Elsewhere I’ve written about how Hong Kong-listed company Ledus are not winning over fans in France after buying Sochaux.

But it seems this is only the start of the expansion of Chinese football. To list just the clubs mentioned above, Jiangsu are sponsored by retail giant Suning; Shanghai and Hebei by real estate developers; Beijing Guoan by Citic Financial Group; Liaoning by a conglomerate. Some state-owned, some private, some somewhere in between. Whatever your business, in China it pays to be seen to be involved in football.

Whether it all actually helps achieve Xi’s triple demand – for China to qualify for, host, and win a World Cup over the next 20 years – remains to be seen. For players, agents and others, it’s time to get under the cash spigot while it’s in full flow.