Guangzhou Evergrande's signing of Jackson Martinez signals power shift
Previously considered a largely irrelevant sideshow, Chinese football has hit the sports pages worldwide over the last few weeks with a display of financial power previously unseen outside the traditional -- all European -- elite of the club game.
With Guangzhou Evergrande confirming the €42 million capture of current Colombia international striker Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid on Wednesday morning, it is a trend which shows no sign of abating. Indeed, it has already been reported that this new transfer record in China may soon be broken as Alex Teixeira nears a €50m move to Jiangsu Suning -- though denied by Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu -- following his failure to secure a deal with Liverpool.
Usually, you would take reports like that with a pinch of salt, but we are now dealing with a Chinese market that has twice obliterated its own transfer record in the last fortnight. Jiangsu's €28m capture of Ramires preceded Evergrande's latest foray into the market and now nothing is being taken for granted in a league that also boasts Fredy Guarin and Gervinho and is being linked with Man City star Yaya Toure.
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While the exorbitant outlay may make many observers raise an eyebrow, the names now heading to the Chinese Super League cannot be ignored. These are big-name players from top five European leagues at the peak of their powers -- not simply those nearing retirement and in need of a final payday.
It has become a trend spread across large swathes the top two divisions. Importantly, rather than being a flash in the pan, it is a trend which has also been growing for two or three years while many chose to look the other way.
Evergrande have led that charge ever since signing 2010 Brasileirao MVP Dario Conca and 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi arrived in the space of 12 months in 2011 and 2012 on what were world-leading salaries. Now, though, Evergrande are far from the only big spenders in what is fast becoming the world's biggest football market outside the Premier League.
The club's latest move comes as little surprise. There had been great anticipation on social media as to who the club would sign to spearhead their attacking unit ahead of the season's start in March ever since the surprising sale of 2013 and 2014 CSL top-scorer Elkeson to nearest rivals Shanghai SIPG for €18m. If they were willing to sell to a rival for no obvious reason, the theory went, there must be plans for a replacement already in place.
Jackson's arrival has answered those questions, with the Colombian now joining former-Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, 2015 South Korean player of the year Kim Young-Gwon, 2014 Brasileirao MVP Ricardo Goulart and 2014-15 Europa League top-scorer Alan at Tianhe Stadium.
"Football is very important to the Evergrande group as a whole," local journalist Feng Zhen told ESPN FC. "They will have felt the pressure rising when they saw other clubs signing big name players.
"The club was recently listed on the stock exchange and therefore there is a need to maintain that value. The signing of big name players plays a crucial role when it comes to attracting sponsors and interest in China. They want to be seen as leading the way. Now, by spending €42m on a player, they are putting themselves on a level with Europe's top sides."
Of all the enterprises to have invested in football, it is the Guangzhou side who have succeeded in finding a route to sustainability. With two AFC Champions League triumphs and five league titles to their name, Evergrande are the biggest name in Asian football and sponsors have taken note. They have become a figure of national pride after years of disappointment, with their name now well known even among those unfamiliar with the sport.
E-commerce giant Alibaba were convinced enough to spend $192m on a 50 percent stake (subsequently reduced to 40 percent) in the club in 2014, while a 2015 IPO listing placed the club's value at $1.61 billion. They are a serious financial entity in their own right, before considering their ability to attract sponsors (including Nissan's Chinese subsidiary and Nike) and sell TV rights.
The Evergrande Group themselves, meanwhile, have attempted to cash-in on their increased brand recognition by entering into the bottled water, cooking oil and baby milk powder markets over the past two years -- besides its forays into the music industry. With the real estate market having slowed in many cities, diversification is seen as key to long-term sustainability.
The truth is, football for the majority of the companies involved in China is a marketing tool either for their products or, in most cases, to elicit political favour. Reports of president Xi Jinping's love of football may not be quite as big as some will suggest, but the desire to shift the Chinese economy away from its reliance on manufacturing is genuine.
Sport, as well as music and cinema, is seen as key to that move. China has already secured the hosting for the 2022 Winter Olympic games, while there has been a flood of investment into established marketing agencies, football clubs and media outlets in Europe in particular. Only recently, Jorge Mendes' Gestifute agency and City Football Group were added to the list of major brands partially in Chinese hands.
So how big can the CSL become? Well, that depends entirely on the development of local players and will take time. Evergrande, though, with their recent signings of some of China's leading young talents -- Li Yuanyi and Xu Xin -- and investment in the world's biggest academy structure, appear to be in it for the long haul. Whether others will be similarly committed remains to be seen.
Economics and political direction will determine just how long China's rise as a financial power in the football world continues. This year's outlay, though, has finally made the world sit up and take note.
This spending could be the beginning of a seismic shift in the world game as China continues to take advantage of their burgeoning economy to recruit talent from leagues who simply cannot compete. European football's governors will certainly want to keep an eye on how things develop. Their monopoly on the club game is finally being challenged.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.