As Neymar, Karim Benzema and a host of other big names followed Cristiano Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia this summer, football fans will have been reminded of the rise and fall of the Chinese Super League.
It was in 2015, that the CSL caught the attention of the football world when Paulinho joined Guangzhou Evergrande. The Brazilian joined up with former national team manager Luiz Felipe Scolari in a £9.9million deal but what really stood out about the move was the fact he was just 26 and swapping the Premier League and Tottenham Hotspur for the relative obscurity, as was back then, of Chinese football.
It kickstarted somewhat of a revolution with a vast array of high-profile players moving to the Asian nation.
Just as the Saudi Pro League caught attention and raised questions with its summer spending in 2023, the major moves made by teams in the CSL led European football fans to question whether the best players on the continent would now leave for China.
However, despite making waves across the sport, the Chinese Super League dream was to be short-lived, and here, we’ll take a look at the hows and the whys.
Chinese Super League: A Timeline
2011: Xi Jinping, a year before becoming leader of China, outlines ambition for China to be a football superpower.
2012: Chinese Super League clubs start receiving investment. Didier Drogba and Frederic Kanouté are among the first big-name players to sign for teams in China.
2013: Guangzhou Evergrande win the Asian Champions League and become the first team from China to achieve this feat.
2015: Guangzhou Evergrande sign Paulinho from Premier League side Tottenham and also land former Real Madrid forward Robinho.
2016: CSL clubs reach height of spending with Argentina international Ezequiel Lavezzi reportedly paid £798,000 per week by Hebei China Fortune.
2017: China’s Football Association announces a series of measures in response to ‘irrational’ spending which includes reducing the foreign player quota.
Who was the Best-paid Player in the Chinese Super League?
The Chinese Super League signed a number of players, famous in Europe and playing regularly in the Champions League, for eye-watering sums with one star name, Ezequiel Lavezzi, reportedly earning a whopping £798,000 per week Hebei China Fortune to make him the top-earner in the division.
Indeed, the Argentine did cost a fortune when he joined from Paris Saint-Germain. Lavezzi’s astronomical wage was a decent earner when you consider he made millions from scoring 35 goals in 75 appearances across four years in China.
In 2016, the CSL was the largest spending domestic competition on the planet, parting with £331m and dwarfing the £215m paid by Premier League clubs.
It was Paulinho’s move which set the ball rolling and made people sit up and take notice a year earlier in 2015. A whole host of names, including that of Manchester United and England legend Wayne Rooney, were reported targets for CSL clubs.
Carlos Tevez was perhaps the biggest name to make the move, joining Shanghai Shenhua from Boca Juniors after spells with Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus. There, he earned a massive £635,000 per week. Former Real Madrid forward Robinho also joined Guangzhou Evergrande.
Oscar was only 25 years of age when he moved from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG. The £60m transfer saw him become the seventh most expensive player in football history at the time.
Hulk, Marouane Fellaini, Ramires, Cedric Bakambu and Graziano Pellé were among the other high-profile players to join for giant salaries.
What Happened to the Chinese Super League?
The Chinese Super League signed a host of big name players in a bid to make football in China a powerhouse between 2015 and 2017.
The country’s leader, Xi Jinping had an ambition, starting in 2011, to turn the nation from a soccer minnow to a leading light in the sport. And so, money from private companies close to the government started to be invested into football.
For a time, though China didn’t record any success internationally, the nation’s domestic league did record success and reap some benefits from such a massive outlay.
In 2013, Guangzhou Evergrande became the first team from China to win the Asian Champions League and won the trophy again two years later.
Then, with famous professionals starring in the CSL having previously shined in Europe, attendances rocketed while broadcasting revenues also increased with one TV deal in 2015 worth a staggering $1.2 billion.
However, with costs climbing and climbing, there was a sense something would have to give.
Why Did China Stop Buying Footballers?
CSL clubs stopped buying star name footballers in 2017 when the Chinese Football Association announced a series of measures in response to ‘irrational’ spending. This included reducing the foreign player quota and also imposing a ‘transfer tax’.
That summer, the Chinese Football Association restricted CSL clubs from purchasing players for giant fees by insisting that teams not making a profit must pay a fee equal to the transfer to a local development fund.
“To benefit the healthy and steady development of professional football leagues and curb the irrational spending on players, those clubs which are in the red should pay the same sums of money as they are spending on buying players to the Chinese Football Development Fund,” said the CFA.
As well as the CFA’s ‘transfer tax’, Beijing also reduced the flow of currency overseas with the Chinese government now concerned about the giant capital leaving the country and so all the regulations in place effectively stopped the spending spree immediately.
In 2020, it was announced the Chinese Super League would also introduce a salary cap. Clubs would be limited to spending up to 600m yuan (368m) per year on salaries, with up to £9m of that total on foreign signings.
Saudi Pro League vs Chinese Super League
The Saudi Pro League’s plan for dominance is expected to have greater longevity than the Chinese Super League dream nearly a decade earlier.
The Saudi Pro League’s summer spending spree and the plethora of star names moving to the Middle East reminded fans of the Chinese Super League’s huge expenditure, leading followers of European football to ponder whether players would leave the continent for Asia. This same cause for concern arose in 2015.
While the CSL certainly signed a host of top names, they didn’t land a superstar like the Saudi Pro League. Al-Nassr’s mega deal to sign Cristiano Ronaldo on a two-and-a-half year contract worth over $200m annually was a statement to the world that this league in the Middle East meant business. Landing Neymar, Benzema and Kante further cemented the ambition.
What’s more, Saudi Arabia has made no secret of the nation’s desire to host a World Cup in future and so signing the best players will help their bid. Whereas the Chinese FA put regulations in place to halt spending, it is likely Pro League teams will be allowed to splash the cash in a bid to land star names and put Saudi Arabia on the football map.
In the 2016/17 winter transfer window, clubs in China spent a huge £331m. Six-and-a-half years later and the Saudi Pro League splashed more than half of that figure at £767m.
Why Did the Chinese Super League Fail?
Ultimately, the Chinese Super League failed after regulations were put in place to restrict teams from ‘irrational’ spending.
Having signed a number of big name players on mega wages, it proved unsustainable. The CFA insisted teams not making a profit must pay a fee equal to the transfer to a local development fund and so it became impossible for clubs to spend at the same rate as they had.
So, while the CSL looked like an emerging force capable of taking on the might of Europe’s top clubs, it soon disappeared and the original vision was left by the wayside.
The Saudi Pro League is setting out on its own bid for supremacy and will be able to learn the lessons of the CSL and the need to make major recruitment viable on an annual basis.