Chinese football clubs have spent the most during the winter transfer period which closed on Friday. But the prospects for the Chinese national team, Chinese Super League (CSL) and international competitiveness remain a riddle.
Ex-Chelsea midfielder Ramires, Argentine international Ezequiel Lavezzi, former Serie A duo Gervinho and Fredy Guarin, ex-Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez and Cameroon captain Stephane Mbia are all on the list of Chinese club recruits, reports Xinhua.
The Chinese transfer fee record has been smashed four times in 2016, culminating in Jiangsu Suning's payment of 50 million euros for Alex Teixeira, also a target of Premier League side Liverpool, from Shakhtar Donetsk.
The new season of CSL kicks-off on March 4.
CSL clubs have spent an unprecedented 317 million euros in total this winter, overtaking the expenditure in the Premier League. Even China's second-tier League One is ranked ahead of Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga and France's Ligue 1 in spending, according to the transfer tracing website transfermarket.
Sven-Goran Eriksson feels money makes clubs stronger
Former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson admits big money is an important factor to attract the Europe-based top players to come.
"I've been in Italy during the 90s when every player wanted to come to Italy because the football was very good. Then I was in England during the 2000s and all the players wanted to go to the Premier League because of more money and the good football," said the Swede, who is at the helm of CSL club Shanghai SIPG.
"Now in 2016, it seems that every player wants to come to China for the same reasons. (The money) will make the clubs much stronger."
As Eriksson said, the focus to invest in football changes about every 10 years but it's no coincidence for China to catch the spotlight.
It came about one year after a top-level team on deepening China's reforms, led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, approved plans to reform the sport in the country. In contrast to China's success in other sports, China has been struggling in football for decades and only reached the World Cup once in 2002.
Club owners and investors have been rushing to pour money since the reform plan carries through, hoping to lift the domestic league and then international competitiveness.
Among them, Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by World Cup-winning Luiz Felipe Scolari, is the pioneer in exploring "big spending for big reward" as the club has won the CSL five times in a row and Asian Champions League twice. The success is accompanied by the club's lavish spending in the past five years for high-profile coaches and players.
Jiangsu Suning, the biggest buyer this winter, just follows suit of Evergrande, aiming at overturning Guangzhou's dominance in three years.
"The target of Jiangsu is to win CSL in three years and Asian Champions League in five years," said the club in a presentation this month.
Second-tier club Tianjin Quanjian also spent generously and expects big. "Promotion to CSL, winning Champions League and Club World Cup" is the club's three-step ambitious plan.
Former Manchester City defender not optimistic about the future
Money brings highlight to Chinese football, but not everyone looks at it positively. Former Manchester City defender Sun Jihai said he "is not optimistic about the future" if heavy spending is always the priority for clubs.
"If all the big money is used on buying foreign players, it helps little for Chinese football and not every player is worth the money," said the 38-year-old, who is the first Chinese to score in Premier League.
Sun's worries is echoed soon, at least from the Chinese clubs' overall performance in the Asian Champions League opening round this week. Four Chinese clubs saw just one win from Shandong Luneng, which is viewed as a setback for CSL.
Defending champion Guangzhou Evergrande drew 0-0 with Pohang Steelers of South Korea at home while Shanghai SIPG lost to Melbourne Victory 1-2 away.
"Chinese football needs a beneficial cycle. We need more domestic players to grow and play abroad. If we can do that, maybe we don't need to pay that much to buy foreign players. We can find local players in the same level," said Sun.
But Eriksson thinks differently, believing the investment in clubs would eventually lead to national team success. "Maybe 10-15 years ahead, I'm sure China's national team will compete well to win the World Cup."
Eriksson gives credit to the improvement of Chinese junior players and praises CSL clubs for opening youth academies. But Sun said the road to success will be longer than most expected because the youth training system in China is still far behind its Asian rival Japan.
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