Jiangsu Suning shock world football with Alex Teixeira and Ramires deals
It's fair to say that just two weeks ago, most football fans worldwide would have been unaware of the existence of Jiangsu Suning FC. Indeed, only a couple of months ago, the team did not exist in its current state.
Jiangsu Sainty, as the team were known last season, had been a middling Chinese Super League side for much of the last decade, whose most notable achievement had been a runner-up position in 2012.
Last season, though, brought new financial power with the sponsorship of electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group and the capture of the Chinese FA Cup in one of the most dour two-legged finals the game can have ever borne witness to. The cup was theirs, though, with a single goal from Suning-funded marquee signing Sammir enough to down Demba Ba and Tim Cahill's Shanghai Shenhua over 180 minutes.
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It is a goal which perhaps changed the course of history for the Chinese Super League.
That triumph brought AFC Champions League football to the club for a second time. In 2016, they will pit their wits against Asia's best and Suning's interest was piqued. Soon after securing the cup, a grand unveiling was hosted in the former capital of Nanjing and the Chinese equivalent of Best Buy (US) or Currys (UK) were unveiled as the new owners of the club.
After a RMB 523 million ($80 million) fee had changed hands, Jiangsu Suning was born. Financially, as with most retail giants in China, Suning are a behemoth. A 19.99 percent stake in the company was sold last August to the Alibaba group for a sum of RMB 28.3 billion ($4.6bn) in a deal designed to expand the online retail potential of the company. Alibaba, interestingly, also own 40 percent of leading CSL side Guangzhou Evergrande through their owner Jack Ma.
According to the financial reports issued at the time, they currently boast 1,600 stores across 289 Chinese cities while in 2012, turnover was listed as a remarkable $16.24 bn. While the net income on those figures was much lower at US$442m, this is a company with enormous financial power should they choose to use it.
Chose to use it they have and over the past two weeks, Suning have come from nowhere to become one of the biggest topics in world football.
Ramires' arrival from Chelsea for a fee of €28m shocked the market. China was previously known for its large salaries, but never before had the CSL parted with such a transfer fee to secure a player from a leading European club.
While that number was subsequently bettered by Jackson Martinez's €42m move to Guangzhou Evergrande, Suning were not done yet. Less than a fortnight later, Liverpool-linked Shakhtar Donetsk star Alex Teixeira was the next through the door for a fee of €50m.
With his salary reportedly hitting €10m for each of the four years of his deal, it is likely that the whole transaction will end up costing the club in excess of €100m.
Countryman Jo, once of Manchester City, has also joined the party while their Asian player roster spot will be filled by Australia's Trent Sainsbury, enticed from PEC Zwolle in the Eredivisie. According to the Dutchman's agent, Wesley Sneijder has since received an offer to round off the club's overseas player quota in a move that would leave Sammir out in the cold.
All has not been plain sailing, though, with major hiccups encountered in the club's earlier moves for Luiz Adriano, Gervinho and Freddy Guarin. The latter two ended up elsewhere in China, following what appeared to be a sudden backtrack from Suning with deals nearing completion.
Luiz Adriano's negotiations were an unmitigated disaster. The Brazilian arrived in China and was assumed to have agreed a deal which would have seen him become the club's first big-name signing. However, when the contract was presented, the Brazilian insisted not all of the salary originally offered was placed in writing. A humiliating retreat back to Milan followed, with Suning left to seek unconvincing explanations for the failure.
Yet in spite of that, all has seemingly been forgotten as the club's subsequent dealings ensured a more positive light has been cast on Suning's transfer activity this winter.
Suning are unusual as a retailer in a league whose financial backing is dominated by money from real estate trading, yet they are facing similar issues. As shop-based sales drop, the company has been forced to look for new long-term revenue streams as well as securing the Alibaba partnership to ensure a greater online presence.
When taking over the club, chairman Zhang Jindong spoke in terms of football being an "obvious choice for the retailer given its strategy of diversification" and that they would follow a "Internet plus sports" model.
While the sports industry in China will doubtless grow in the decade ahead, it is still a heavy loss maker at this point. Government pressure to invest as Jiangsu province's biggest company doubtless also played a part.
Suning must adapt to survive in what is a rapidly changing business environment and having doubtless witnessed the transformation in Evergrande's brand status following football success, they are trying to follow suit. Long-term, it could pay major dividends.
For all the big money additions, though, success in the CSL will not come easy. Evergrande's foreign player roster may be brimming with quality, but over the course of a 30-game campaign it is their stellar cast of China's leading talent which sets them apart from the rest.
In a market where most of the best domestic players are locked into long-term contracts with four or five sides, Suning will struggle to match the league's leading teams despite the reasonable selection of Chinese players available to them.
However, where success has really paid off for Evergrande has been in the AFC Champions League. Honours on that stage attract huge coverage across China and not insignificant attention internationally, especially given the opportunity to play in the FIFA Club World Cup against the best in Europe and the Americas.
It is that competition which Suning will likely target this year as the stage upon which they can make the biggest impact. In two-legged ties against Asia's best, the quality of their Brazilian recruits can make a difference. One goal here or there, as shown in last year's CFA Cup final, could send head coach Dan Petrescu's side further than most imagined in Asia's premier club competition.
Their progress will now be closely monitored by many across the globe. In that respect Suning, who made no secret of their desire for big names to boost their company's advertising potential, are already winning.
Should results not come on the pitch, though, there could be some red faces after a window in which self-publicity has been the order of the day. Petrescu's job -- saved only by cup triumph -- will require a return on the pitch almost immediately.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.