Ramires and Gervinho key to helping galvanise Chinese football
China's national team have been disappointing since they finished as runners-up at the 2004 Asian Cup, but all is not lost domestically as the Chinese Super League (CSL) has brought a new hope to the fans following an influx of top players.
Football in China has had its share of problems: corrupted by fixed matches, bribed referees and player scandals. And, as such, the domestic league has never been able to convince the best players in the world to play there.
However, the introduction of Guangzhou Evergrande in 2010 stimulated the Chinese football market. Not only did the club bring in a number of national team stars, they also signed world renowned players from European major leagues like Lucas Barrios, Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino, as well as some top talents from the Brazilian league like Dario Conca, Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart.
With such a strong squad, Evergrande bounced from mid-table obscurity (a position where they regularly occupied before being relegated for match-fixing in 2009) to the top of Asian football as they won the title five years in a row from 2011 onwards.
To compete with Evergrande, other Chinese top clubs had to abandon less valuable and mediocre-level foreign players and go for the big guns. So Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Demba Ba went to Shanghai Shenhua; Asamoah Gyan was signed by Shanghai SIPG; Vagner Love and Diego Tardelli joined Shandong Luneng. The other teams with less of a budget also signed renowned players like Yakubu (Guangzhou R&F) and Frederic Kanoute (Beijin Guoan).
With the influx of prestigious foreign players and the good performances that came with it, CSL matches became far more competitive and exciting. The fans' emotional connection to their local league even began to turn people away from the European leagues -- which require a deep commitment as most of the games take place in the middle of the night in China.
As such, the publicity generated from a much improved league resulted in the influx of capital. In September 2015, Ti'ao Power, a company based in Beijing specialising in sports marketing, paid an ambitious eight billion RMB (a little bit more than £800 million) to purchase the CSL broadcasting rights for the next five years. And a large proportion of that lucrative fee was allocated to each CSL club, meaning there was more disposable income for clubs to sign better players.
It may be only a part of what makes a successful domestic league, but with more high-profile global stars now playing in CSL, more money from broadcasting rights, tickets and the rising value of the brand, things are starting to look up.
The next step is to make sure that China is developing domestic players who will learn a lot from the foreign players and coaches to ensure that the growing revenues are not squandered and used to fund youth systems that will bring through the next generation of Chinese stars.
Five years ago, nobody would have expected the CSL to have made the strides that it has. Recent events have shown that it can now compete with its peers on the global stage and with so many eyes now on China, the league must prove itself ready to make the next leap forward.
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Top five CSL signings of 2016 so far
Ramires (Jiangsu Suning)
Suning Commerce Group, a renowned retail organisation in China, purchased Jiangsu football club from Sainty-group in December 2015 and the new owners immediately showed their ambition by trying to bring in Luis Adriano and Fredy Guarin from AC Milan and Inter Milan respectively, as well as Gervinho from Roma. All three moves failed, but they managed to strike an incredible £25m deal for Ramires from Chelsea.
It remains to be seen if the Brazil international is the player Jiangsu Suning need from a football perspective -- Chinese international midfielder Wu Xi, the best player at the club, plays a similar style -- but his signing has already made significant waves and can certainly be seen as one of the best moves in China's history.
Gervinho (Hebei Fortune)
After Rudi Garcia was sacked as Roma coach, Gervinho lost his place in the team and Jiangsu Suning made contact, but when they failed to reach an agreement over his wages Hebei Fortune swooped in and signed him for €19m.
It was reported that the Ivorian demanded a private beach when Al Jazira tried to sign him last summer and Beidaihe Beach Resort, in the suburb of Qinhuangdao where his new team is based, is a popular destination which is often visited by top Chinese government officials.
Fredy Guarin (Shanghai Greenland Shenhua)
The team had already made a few signings that shocked the football world -- Nicolas Anelka in 2011; Didier Drogba in 2012; then Tim Cahill, Demba Ba and Mohamed Sissoko last year -- but they failed to reach the Asian Champions League after being defeated by Jiangsu in the final of the 2015 China FA Cup.
This year they brought in Gregorio Manzano as their new coach and while the club wanted Newcastle's Cheick Tiote, the new manager preferred Colombian international Guarin, who was being tracked by Jiangsu. When those talks stagnated, Shenhua struck a deal worth a reported €13m.
Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan)
Beijing Guoan have been the one CSL team most reluctant to invest in football. But after an unsuccessful 2015 season, they finally made two signings: Corinthians duo Ralf and Renato Augusto.
Renato, who will take the No. 10 position as a replacement for Pablo Batalla, played at Bayern Leverkusen for four years and is expected to lead the line.
Gil (Shandong Luneng)
As a member of the current Brazil squad, Gil is probably the defender with the highest profile in Chinese football league history and joins up with former coach Mano Menezes at Shandong.
Though they have Wang Dalei, China's first-choice goalkeeper, Shandong conceded 41 goals in 30 matches in the 2015 season, the worst record among the top five teams. While other teams tried to sign big names in the attacking line and midfield, the club turned to defence and prised the Brazilian away from Corinthians for around €10m.