China buying up all the players is “football as we know it”

In the 80’s there were these famous anti-drug commercials on TV in the USA. The most instantly recognizable is the “this is your brain on drugs” egg frying in a pan but there were also lesser hits which always stood out with me. One of them was a scene where a dad confronts his rocker son with his marijuana stash. The dad asks a series of questions that leads to “where did you learn how to do this?” and the son fires back “I learned it by watching YOU, OK.” Then there’s a cut to the narrator who warns that parents who do drugs teach their kids to do drugs. Perhaps the British press need a similar public service announcement when it comes to their fervent hand wringing over the growing influence of China in the football world.

In 2003 Arsenal chairman David Dein famously said  “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing pounds 50 notes at us.” This was in reference to a spending spree by Chelsea, the likes of which had never been seen in English football. Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri had purchased Claude Makelele for the then astronomical fee of £17m. It was a transfer which would herald a new age in English football, Chelsea went on to spend £125m* that summer buying Damien Duff, Hernan Crespo, Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge, Mutu, Juan Sebastien Veron, Scott Parker, and the aforementioned Makelele. Arsenal won the League that season, going unbeaten in all 38 games.

The next summer, Chelsea replaced Ranieri with Jose Mourinho and the Portuguese manager cleared out most of Ranieri’s players and brought in another £100m worth of talent. Mourinho won the Premier League in his first season, with his huge wealth of new players. Leaving Arsenal’s “Invincibles” to second place as Chelsea lost just one game all season.

As for Arsenal and David Dein, Chelsea had been trying to buy Arsenal’s Thierry Henry since Dein’s famous quip but it took Chelsea three years before they were able to get a player off Arsenal when left back Ashley Cole was caught in a hotel room with Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2006.

Chelsea’s spending in the transfer market inflated the prices for all other teams. And the salaries they had to offer inflated the demands that players could make on their clubs. It was salary which enticed Ashley Cole away from Arsenal to Chelsea: “I almost crashed my car” he said when Arsenal offered £55k a week rather than the £60k he wanted. Just three years after joining Chelsea, in the summer of 2009, Ashley Cole was earning £120k a week at Chelsea.

It wasn’t entirely Chelsea’s own fault that they paid Ashley Cole a striker’s salary to play fullback. Another big-spender had come on the market in 2008, Manchester City. Following in the Chelsea model, City spent all the money they could on getting any big name player in through the doors. Their big splash was Robinho.

Robinho made the transfer from Real Madrid to City on the deadline day of summer 2008. He was originally going to go to Chelsea, and had an agreement with the London team, but at the last minute City “swooped” in with a sweeter offer: a record £160k a week salary. Robinho wasn’t the only one to come in for inflated salaries and transfers. Jo, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Pablo Zabaleta, and Vincent Kompany were all snapped up in an initial outlay of over £100m.

City followed that initial spending spree with a follow-up spending spree of £100m, including the capture of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure from Arsenal. And then another spending spree, bringing in Edin Dzeko, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Jerome Boateng. It took three years of spending but City were finally able to attract top talent. And with their huge wealth of talent, City won the Premier League the next season, 2011/12.

In the parlance of the 1987 public service announcement, when asked where City got this big idea to just spend money on players they replied “I learned it from you Chelsea, OK?”

City and Chelsea have benefitted enormously from these rich Oligarchs coming in and buying their way to success. The transformation of Man City from a mid-table club that occasionally flirts with relegation to a club which boasts a £200m state-of-the-art training facility with 16 pitches and 6 swimming pools is exactly the kind of long-term transformative investment that English football needs.

And now, along comes China. The Chinese Super League recently turned heads when Shanghai SIPG payed £52m for Chelsea wash out Oscar. Oscar’s transfer to Shanghai SIPG means that Chelsea will net a £30m+ profit on the player. Money they will then use to further stockpile players and loan them out to teams all over the world, or will use to buy star players from other leagues like the Bundesliga, Serie A, or la Liga.

Following on the heels of that story are rumors that Chelsea’s star striker, Diego Costa, has been tapped up and is agitating for a move to China. There were multiple stories of a bust-up between Costa and Chelsea boss Antonio Conte with Conte reportedly ending the fight with “well go to China then!” Even Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez is rumored to be using contacts with China in order to ask for a larger salary to re-sign with Arsenal.

I say “China” here because it is well known that Chinese president Xi Jinping is a huge fan of football. On his tour of England, it wasn’t an accident that he went to the Manchester City training ground and got a selfie done with City’s star striker Sergio Aguero.

Ji recognizes the potential of football for his country. In 2003, when Everton played Man City, each team featuring a Chinese player in their starting lineup, 300 million people tuned in to watch. And recently Ji declared football a national priority, setting the goal of creating a domestic football economy worth $850 billion by 2025. Chinese businessmen are following in Ji’s vision, both buying players and building the domestic league but also buying stakes in foreign clubs. One of the world’s richest men, Wang Jianlin — owner of Wanda, recently aquired 20% stake in Atletico Madrid, though he also famously just said that he won’t be putting any more money into them because they just burn it. Another Chinese company Suning owns both the Chinese Super League club Jiangsu and Italian club Inter Milan. And, of course, CMC (Chinese Media Capital) just purchased a 13% stake in Man City.

“China” (more appropriately, Chinese businessmen and international capitalist businesses) are only doing to the Premier League what Chelsea and City’s owners, themselves billionaire businessmen from Oligarchic nations, did to the Premier League and other leagues around the world: using the power of their money to draw in as many big-name players as they can so that they can build out a business which attracts as many viewers (consumers/products) as possible.

Isn’t it ironic that the intelligentsia behind the Premier League, the writers who claimed that the Man City and Chelsea era heralded a new dawn, a vision of “a billionaire for every club” are now the ones either deriding China’s investment, fobbing it off as part of a bubble, or worse claiming that it’s a frightening change that signals a potential end of football as we know it, with headlines like “Soccer is in danger”.

Sorry to break it to everyone but “football as we know it” has been like this for at least the last 14 years; wealthy men and corporations, even nations, have been buying up all the talent (even whole clubs) they can get their hands on, radically changing the landscape for all the other clubs around the world, distorting transfers and salaries, and changing fan expectations.

This is football as we know it and I’ll be surprised if we don’t see a big name player like Alexis Sanchez or Diego Costa move to China next summer with a record transfer fee.



Reddit list of managers and players in China:


Chinese Super League:

Luiz Felipe Scolari (Guangzhou Evergrande)

Andre Villas Boas (Shanghai SIPG)

Gus Poyet (Shanghai Shenhua)

Dragan Stojkovic (Guangzhou R&F)

Manuel Pellegrini (Hebei China Fortune)

Felix Magath (Shandong Luneng)

Fabio Cannavaro (Tianjin Quanjian)

Chinese League One:

Sven Goran Eriksson (Shenzhen FC)


Chinese Super League:

Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan) – Formerly of Bayer Leverkusen.

Alan Carvalho (Guangzhou Evergrande) – Formerly of RB Salzburg.

Paulinho (Guangzhou Evergrande) – Formerly of Tottenham.

Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande) – Formerly of Porto and Atletico.

Gael Kakuta (Hebei China Fortune) – Formerly of Chelsea.

Gervinho (Hebei China Fortune) – Formerly of Lille, Arsenal and Roma.

Stephane Mbia (Hebei China Fortune) – Formerly of Rennes, Marseille, QPR and Sevilla.

Alex Texeira (Jiangsu Suning) – Formerly of Shakhtar.

Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) – Formerly of Chelsea.

Diego Tardelli (Shandong Luneng) – Formerly of Sao Paulo and Atletico 11Mineiro.

Papiss Cisse (Shandong Luneng) – Formerly of Newcastle.

Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng) – Formerly of Southampton.

Obafemi Martines (Shanghai Shenhua) – Formerly of Inter, Newcastle and Wolfsburg.

Carlos Tevez (Shanghai Shenhua) – Formerly of West Ham, Man Utd, Man City and Juventus.

Oscar (Shanghai SIPG) – Formerly of Chelsea.

Hulk (Shanghai SIPG) – Formerly of Porto and Zenit.

Jadson (Tianjn Quanjian) – Formerly of Shakhtar.

Axel Witsel (Tianjon Quanjian) – Formerly of Benfica and Zenit.

John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA) – Formerly of Chelsea.

The Chinese Super League has more well known players and managers than you think. from soccer


*Exact figures for privately held companies are difficult to obtain. The amount spent was well beyond anything ever seen in England and according to topped £150m. All figures used here are from Transfermarkt.


  1. Well now that is an eye popping list, in more ways than one.

    Many are well past their prime and their value to even an upstart team is questionable; one wonders why a lumbering defensive midfielder like Mikel gets a payday in any top flight trying to establish itself when I’m sure much more affordable and better options abounded. It gives the impression that the name and profile of the player is more important than the current ability player himself. This is not unexpected for an upstart league and recalls the David Beckham LA Galactico days.

    In other cases, like Witsel, Hulk and Tevez, it’s not their first time foregoing powerful European clubs to join well moneyed upstarts instead. It must have been a relatively easy transition from Zenit. Still others, like the talented Alex Teixera, who is only 27, might have wanted to get out of Shaktar, a war torn region recently, and a well moneyed upstart itself; another natural transition then. A trend appears: many of these footballers have connections to Russia, Russian football, and/or Chelsea.

    Which leads me to the former Chelsea players now playing in China: Mikel, Oscar, Ramires and Kakuta. That’s a lot of players from one former team who now all play in China. It suggests some sort of connection, and given the type of people involved, a suspicious one. Quite frankly it makes me wonder whether the Oscar sale is the most egregious example in a series of heavily greased favors from China to Abramovich (in exchange for god knows what) and whether they are now using Chinese football as a release valve for their inflated salaries on dud players in order to maintain compliance with FFP. Viewed in this light it becomes easier to understand how Jon Obi Mikel is still employed to play football, why Ramires was sent there instead of somewhere else, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cesc Fabregas went there next.

    As powerful as the Chinese businessmen are, and as well connected to Chelsea as they are, I don’t see any imminent shift in the power structure of world football because of them. At the end of the day people still choose what they watch and not many current fans will change their Saturday morning and afternoon allegiance just because Big Phil is managing Carlos Tevez. It will get bigger, eventually, but it will never completely overtake the 100+ year head start that the major football leagues and clubs have over it.

    1. That’s an interesting point that Chelsea are somehow managing to make some pretty fantastic deals for player to their rich neighbors: Luiz is a weird one as well as Oscar. Though I will point out that Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have a long history of profiting greatly from Barcelona.

      I see the development of the Chinese Super League a lot like the transition in Major League Soccer. MLS is growing in popularity here and it takes away from EPL and others. The same will happen in China where the market is stupendously large.

      I think you’re minimizing the impact that this is going to have. I’m saying that the inflation started by Chelsea/City is going to reach epic scale here soon. It’s going to take one good name, like Alexis, or (if you’re right and Chelsea are more well connected) Diego Costa. Costa is, as far as I’m concerned, as good as gone to China. This is a guy who (again like you point out) is much like the other names on that list and is a complete merc — so much so that he switched COUNTRY affiliations. Once those named players from big clubs make the switch, man. Why would a guy like Keita sign for Arsenal when he could immediately go to China and be a millionaire? This happened with Chelsea and City. Everyone said that they won’t be able to draw big names and sure enough they did. It just literally take a few years to get it started.

      My guess is that more than even the players it’s the agents. China is going to be a virtual ATM for agents.

      And I haven’t even spoken a word about the corruption that is rampant in the Chinese Leagues.

      1. All valid points. The only thing not yet discussed is the windfall of TV money coming in the EPL. They have a global brand, and massive viewership, that is likely impossible to replicate. Unless everyone across the world cuts cords in the next few years, and the TV entities go broke, I think most players will still much prefer great wages, great competition, London/Manchester living vs China, and all the publicity from being globally televised 9 months a year.

  2. I think there are crucial differences between Chelsea/City as upstart clubs in an already established league and China as an upstart league. For Chelsea/City the viewership and platform was already there. They were going to play the traditional powerhouses twice a year and with the PL emerging as a global commodity, many new fans were looking for a club to support.

    Contrast that to asking people who already watch PL football to watch the Chinese league instead of, or even in addition to, the PL. First of all it’s nearly impossible to see a game live given the time difference. Second, even if you’ve heard of or even like some player and manager in the league, is that really enough of a pull to get you to support their team and care about their whole Championship? I bet loads of Englishmen googled Beckham highlights on youtube but did they even notice when Real Salt Lake played the Sounders in the MLS cup final? Lastly, there needs to be a community of supporters who talk about the game online and in person. Nowhere is that more difficult than with China. Not just because of the absurdly difficult language but also because the country itself is vast, secretive and still at its heart a police state.

    1. “Lastly, there needs to be a community of supporters who talk about the game online and in person. Nowhere is that more difficult than with China. Not just because of the absurdly difficult language but also because the country itself is vast, secretive and still at its heart a police state.”

      I come from a more “liberal” part of Asia and now live in China, and I would like to change your impression of this.Contrary to western opinion, popular media is relatively uncontrolled and things like football fall clearly under this with many fan forums and chat groups, as well as fan-focused bars. The problem is that the Chinese have developed their own internet ecosystem independent of the rest of the world. Just because they don’t post on reddit, soccernet and 7amkickoff does not mean that they are not mad football supporters with established communities. They simply have different places where they post on. Instead of twitter, there’s weibo for example. Secretive? If by secretive, you mean they don’t engage with the rest of the world, yes. But China has 1/5 of the world’s population so they don’t really have to. You just have to buy their manufactured goods, and they buy your footballers.

      And to give you some perspective, the population of Beijing is 25 million. Tianjin: 10 million. That’s a huge population just across two cities with the Beijing Guoan-Tianjin Tieda Derby is the most intense I have ever seen. It was so bad that away Tianjin supporters are currently banned from the Beijing Workers’ Stadium.

      1. Chris, thank you for your perspective. I don’t claim to be an expert on Asian nations or lifestyles. But the simple truth remains that China is a communist nation. I used to live in a communist nation. I know what it’s like. I was very careful to say “At its heart” because I know they are trying to appear otherwise our outwardly. I would be curious of your perspective if you lived in the United States or another western democracy for a while.

        Also while I don’t doubt do you Normandy of the Chinese viewership, my claim is not that the Chinese super league can’t get huge in China. My claim is that it will not overtake or replace the major European football leagues, at least not for a long long time.

    2. I agree with you that a transformation of the Chinese domestic league into a global TV deal powerhouse will take a good amount of time. But I disagree with your opinion that language barriers, secrecy, and “police state” will become significant deterrents.

      The attractiveness of sports leagues ultimately come down to a few things
      1. Player/team star power
      2. Player/team branding
      3. Overall competitiveness of teams in the league

      Language barriers and secrecy will make little impact on the factors above. Soccer itself is a language. Using e-sports as an example: Koreans have dominated the global Starcraft scene for years. Major tournaments are held every year in California, but while the home team will always try to root for American players, top level plays consistently draw top level crowds and viewerships. On a different game like DotA – where the same game used to be played by effectively isolated communities – the introduction of The International tournament brought these national communities together and with it a clash of different styles. Teams from Ukraine, Sweden, US, have all won fans from around the world. Chinese teams took a while longer to win hearts and minds but the champions of 2016 Wings gaming left the global Dota community speechless over a dominant showing (and thanks to the increased exposure from fans helping to translate the Chinese personalities to the western crowd).

      Anecdotally, I became an Arsenal supporter while watching Overmars and Bergkamp play over the late 90s for the Netherlands. I didn’t need to understand English or watch any of their interviews. Their phenomenal display on the pitch won me over and when it was all said and done I decided Arsenal was the team for me.

      The biggest wildcard I can see is policy-related: how much does the Chinese League gets influenced by government policies, and how well organized is the Chinese league to improve its value while working with the agenda/policies set forth by the Chinese government. If the agenda is to get China to the world cup, then I can see policies which limits foreign players in CSL continuing, which is going to limit the rate of growth for the CSL as a global brand. If the government wants to fight corruption or set to favor soccer-related investments, that can greatly affect the amount of money being thrown around by the CSL Teams. If the leadership in the Chinese government changes and wants to adopt a different policy, then the CSL will have to adapt as well. That’s the power of the authoritarian government and what makes it unpredictable.

      Source: Grew up a Shanghai Shenhua fan 😉

      As an aside — while China still claims to be a communist country, there’s a stark difference between the China in the 70s-80s vs the China of today. If you’re curious I’d be happy to elaborate.

  3. I have no issue with the growth of the Chinese league – so what? Like you said, it’s no different than what happened in the Premier League. The reason people are upset is the main reason fans of Serie A and La Liga criticize the Prem – money has drained top talent from their leagues. I for one will always be an Arsenal fan, but don’t mind the PL becoming an inferior league compared to the Chinese.

    And let’s not even get into the racist element that pervades all these arguments against it…

  4. Very interesting Tim and loved how you pointed out the hypocrisy of some journalists. As much money as China offers though, I think it will still be far behind in terms of capturing global talent. Firstly, I would be surprised to see a Chinese team made up mostly of foreign players like you see in the English clubs. Initially, there may be some that have a lot of foreign players but the Chinese, for the most part, are deeply nationalistic and will want to see Chinese players coming up through their teams. Secondly, there is just no way world class players will choose China as their top destination over English or Spanish leagues. Obviously there will be exceptions like Diego Costa – but we all know he’s a c*nt.

    I think what will happen is – there will be a handful of players that will end up in China. Some will be rejects from top European clubs who didn’t make the grade, some will be has-beens looking for a last pig pay day and some will be c*nts like Costa. Will it be enough to really affect the Premier League? Tough to say. On one hand, you can argue that it already has but to what degree really? It’s not like Costa isn’t irreplaceable. Chelsea, for their part, will keep throwing money until they find a good striker. Isn’t that something they do anyways? I suppose you can use Alexis as an example too but if it wasn’t China, it would be someone else (I think Juventus has popped up a few times) him or his agent would be using to negotiate a better deal.

    I don’t see it much of an issue other than generating sensational headlines (“Costa c*nts Chelsea; covets China”) but certainly something to keep an eye on.

  5. I’m not paying much attention to this story but as far as I know the ticket prices relative to the standard of living in China are worse than they are in the US (and therefore much worse than Europe), so seats, to the extent that they are filled, are mostly occupied by rich guys and people who got tickets for free due to connections. That may have a severe impact on their ability to actually grow the league commercially, I don’t know.

  6. The incredible, incredibly smart Arsene Wenger nailed it for me when questioned about the Chinese Superleague some weeks ago.

    “Can they sustain it?”

    Can this ridiculous spending be enough of a long term phenomenon to undermine the current supremecy of European football?

    The government on the mainland has already moved to curb spending and it being you know, not exactly a democracy, clubs have no choice to comply.

    The Chinese government is many things. A lot of them bad to someone like me who has grown up in a Western democracy. One thing they are not is stupid.

    When Deng Xiao Ping declared that “to be rich is glorious” he didn’t mean to stupid rich. And the control that will be inexorably exerted from the Politburo will be what may ultimately still keep Europe the primary destination for the world’s top footballers.

    That, and the air quality in Beijing.

  7. Anything is possible to state the obvious. When a degenerate con man is on the eve of becoming president, truly anything is possible.

    Putting politics aside completely, the contrast between the personal integrity and uncommon decency of the outgoing guy vs the incoming guy makes me want to vomit.

  8. The Chinese president’s name is Xi Jinping, as you correctly referred to. But then who is this Ji person that you keep talking about?

  9. A wonderful post that the right insight to can only be achieved if one is able to think far beyond the round leather game. China as a nation is totally consumed by the desire to be the prime nation of the world. Many indices are already pointing straight at that, and not least the fact that America would put the direction of their destiny in the hands of a loose cannon. From history is distilled the maxim that empires rise and fall. From phenomena we know very well the cyclic nature of things.

    Is this the beginning of the change of guards? This does not mean that the Premier League would die. Seria “A” has not died, and the fact that A C Millan can no longer bid for the “Dutch Masters” does not mean that the fierce rivalry between them and Inter Milan has ebbed in any way.

    Football and money have almost become synonymous and China is the new money. America couldn’t crack the barrier to football dominance of the world because it was battling other deeply entrenched sporting games. 300 million Chinese stayed up late to watch two Chinese players in an Everton V Machester City match on the other side of the globe. It is mind bugling!

    Western Europeans can’t understand the desperate nature of squalor and poverty in much of the rest of the world. The footballers from these parts of the world are financial ambassadors to their people. John Mikel Obi must head to China. Same too, the new generation of football wizards, whether from the dusty streets of Tocopilla, or from the crime riddled neighborhood of São Paulo, would all head to where the money is, China.

    The revolution is on. But it will take a long long time, before the modern day “Dutch Masters”, the Agueroes, Zabeletas, Yaya Toures, Manes, Sanchezes, Ospinas … become a scarce commodity in the Premier League.

  10. Didn’t Beijing put a cap on foreign players recently?

    That is the right direction. At least they are smarter than that to bastardize the league before it can kick start.

    I do speak with some acquaintances from China and they all watch football. They are also all very cynical as far as local football is concerned because it is too shady and the quality is not there.

    China as a sporting nation has always excelled in individual sports because their background in coaching has always been to drill the individual. They are not so good, relatively, in team sports. Perhaps a change in grassroots mentality is more fundamental.

    1. Yes you are right. The cap is 4 foreign players, I think. The converse of that is that there are no salary caps so they can concentrate all their money on these 4 players. Hence why they are going for top of the market players, not over the hill types like the MLS.

    2. 3 foreign players per team on any given matchday times 16 teams in the Chinese Super League, makes 48 foreigners featuring every weekend. Chelsea alone can suit up more players across the Europe if you count all of their loaned out players which at the moment is 38.

      I’m actually hoping for the CFA to change the rules and allow an unlimited number of foreign players. Think about it. Arsenal might lose Alexis, but other clubs might lose even more superstars which should clear the way for Arsenal and Wenger to finally dominate the PL and Europe.

      Happy days! 🙂

  11. which of us would readily decline an offer of £36 million in a single year for the sake of playing in a “better” league? that’s an unthinkable amount of money to simply turn your back on. it’s easy for us to condemn someone for being money hungry, however the situation becomes less clear when you are the person offered the money. to make that move is neither illegal nor unethical. why wouldn’t one consider it?

    as for the direction of the chinese league, do you really care? beckham claimed to care about the direction of the mls but was that required? are you really a mercenary if you decide to make that move?

    1. Well there’s a difference Joshua, we wouldn’t decline 36m because we haven’t already made many millions already. Our situation is similar to that of young players, not established stars in the latter half of their prime.

    2. I don’t think any of the players on the above list, least of all Hulk, Tevez or Witsel were strapped for cash when they moved to China. I didn’t know about the 4 player foreigner cap but that makes it easier to understand the profile of players they seem to be chasing.

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