From his luxury suite overlooking the Huangpu river in Shanghai, the man now said to be the world’s best paid footballer can gaze out over a sea of skyscrapers in what is fast becoming the most free-spending transfer market on earth.
Carlos Tevez landed in China’s financial capital last week, checking into the five-star Marriott Luwan with an entourage of 19 and a salary from his new club, Shanghai Shenhua, reported to be in excess of £600,000 a week.
“It is a tantalizing sum,” Argentina’s greatest player Diego Maradona said, defending his countryman from criticism that he had put money before sport. “Carlitos didn’t defraud anyone or trick anyone. He simply accepted an astronomical offer,” he added.
The former Manchester City and Manchester United star’s £71.6m switch to Shanghai’s top team is the latest deal in a jaw-dropping 12-month spending extravaganza that has seen some of football’s top names move to China, with more certain to follow.
“The fans are very happy – it means we can see fantastic games, always,” said Frank Ding, president of the Blue Devils, Shenhua’s biggest supporters’ group.
So great is the buying power of China’s top clubs now that scarcely a day goes by without rumors about which international star the country’s big spenders are closing in on. “They’ve got the money. It’s as simple as that,” said Cameron Wilson, a longtime Shanghai-based chronicler of the Chinese game who believes China could be on its way to smashing the world transfer record of £89.3m set last year with the sale of Paul Pogba to Manchester United.
“China loves to have the world’s biggest this, the world’s biggest that,” said Wilson, who runs the Wild East Football website. “That’s what they do these days.”
The apparently limitless supply of cash has brought joy to thousands of Chinese fans but also concerns that China’s voracious appetite for top-flight footballers – and its willingness to outbid all others to obtain them – might rob European leagues of their brightest lights.
“The Chinese market is a danger for all,” Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said last month after one of his players, Oscar, was poached.
Things were very different when 42-year-old Frank Ding began his love affair with Shanghai Shenhua in 1993, with the club just about to become a founder member of the country’s first fully professional league. Back then, China lagged behind Spain as only the world’s ninth largest economy and Shanghai’s spectacular futuristic skyline was only just starting to take shape.
Shanghai Shenhua’s ground was the 40-year-old Hongkou stadium (rebuilt in 1999 to its current 33,000-capacity) and the club’s most famous player was Chinese defender Fan Zhiyi, who would later move to south London after Crystal Palace, paid £700,000 for his services. Shenhua had few foreigners on its books – “Three guys from Russia,” Ding recalls.
Almost two decades of economic boom later, China is the world’s No. 2 economy and a full-scale international invasion of the 16-team Chinese Super League is under way.
The first significant incursion came in 2011 with the arrival of Argentinian midfielder Darío Conca at Guangzhou Evergrande. “He was the first player in his prime who could have easily gone to play in the Premiership or any top European league,” said Wilson. “He’s still one of the best players I’ve seen in the flesh.”
Next came former Chelsea stars Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba who received heroes’ welcomes after swapping Stamford Bridge for Shanghai.
In the past year there has been a frenzy of super-sized deals. Shanghai SIPG, Shenhua’s local rival, splashed out £52m on Oscar and £45m on Hulk, with the two players each said to be earning more than £320,000. Two more Brazilians, Alex Teixeira and Ramires, swapped Donetsk and London for the eastern city of Nanjing after Jiangsu Suning paid at least £58m for the pair.
Italian striker Graziano Pellè moved from Southampton to Jinan where he now plays for Shandong Luneng under former Fulham manager Felix Magath and earns a reported £260,000 a week.
More recently South American stars including Falcao, Diego Costa and Dani Alves have been linked with moves to China as have English players including Manchester United’s Ashley Young – said to be the target of a £16m switch to Shandong – and Wayne Rooney, for whom a £1m-a-week move to Beijing or Guangzhou is reportedly being lined up.
Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has supported moves to turn China – which languishes 81st in Fifa’s world rankings, just behind Cape Verde and St Kitts and Nevis – into a footballing powerhouse that can eventually host and win the World Cup.
But the vast sums being spent appear to have raised eyebrows in Beijing, where Xi has been pushing high-profile anti-corruption and austerity campaigns. This month authorities vowed to crack down on “irrational investment” and clubs that are “burning money” on foreign stars with excessive salaries.
The Chinese FA also tightened its rules on how many foreign players top-flight clubs could use at any one time, cutting the number from four to three, with the use of foreign goalkeepers banned altogether.
“Xi’s administration is very big on frugality,” said Wilson. “This extravagance and wastefulness on transfer fees is an anathema to them. That’s why they’ve felt ideologically bound to speak out and say: ‘Hey, cut it out!’”
Nor are club officials entirely happy with the behavior of some of the foreign stars who are flocking east. “Many come to China to abandon themselves to alcohol and nightclubs,” Wu Jingui, Shenhua’s technical director, was quoted as saying in an interview.
Wilson said the most eye-watering transfers were focused on about six or seven clubs; four traditional powerhouses and two or three upstart clubs whose super-rich owners were attempting to purchase a shortcut to success.
The unbridled munificence of these clubs was partly about trying to impress the Communist party at a time when Xi was promoting the beautiful game, Wilson said – but old-fashioned ego also played a major role. “They’ve got the cash and they like to spend it and they like to be seen spending it,” he said of the billionaire owners bankrolling the boom.
One man who is worried about the stampede of big name foreign signings is veteran sports writer Yan Qiang. In an interview at the headquarters of his sports media firm in east Beijing, Yan likened the “reckless” spending binge to an arms race that would ultimately backfire on clubs and fans alike.
“I don’t think it is sustainable,” he warned, predicting that “nothing but debris and broken walls” would remain once opportunistic investors lost interest in the game and walked away.
Yan said most foreign stars were recruited as a way of boosting a club’s profile or currying favor with the government but said he suspected money laundering was a factor in some deals.
And while Yan argued Chinese clubs were merely following in the footsteps of Premier League teams who had spent 20 years tempting foreign stars with fat pay cheques, he said he feared huge sums of money that should be strengthening the Chinese game were going abroad.
Wilson said it was unfair to claim imported players contributed nothing to the Chinese game and had simply come to an inferior league to boost their bank balances.
“In a lot of cases the players do make a big effort and bring a big change. Chinese clubs’ performances in the Asia Champions League have got a lot better and Guangzhou Evergrande have won it twice in the last few years,” he said. “Foreign talent does have benefits. It increases the overall talent level of the league, it makes them more marketable, it gets more local people interested and it does set a high standard for the Chinese players to learn from.”
But a network of corruption had also sprung up around the industry. “Irregular transfer payments is the name of the game in China. It’s a really a very murky environment and a lot of this money is not staying in football. It’s going into the pockets of middlemen, it’s going into the pockets of people inside the clubs … the owners don’t really care exactly where the money goes.”
For all those concerns Ding said he believed the future of Chinese football was bright and that “super soccer players” such as Tevez were helping the Chinese league mature.
With the new season now only weeks away and Shenhua aiming to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish, he said he hoped Tevez would provide some bangs for his bucks by scoring more than 20 goals. “He is top-level – like Ibrahimović. We hope to see fantastic games.”
More than two decades after he first saw Shenhua win, against a team from Sichuan province, Ding said the arrival of international stars from Africa, South America and Europe was part of the reason he rarely missed a game. “It’s my life,” the diehard fan said of his football addiction. “It is my hope.”