BEIJING: The world of elite football is changing as teams in the Chinese Super League (CSL) have spent almost as much on players as the notoriously profligate English Premier League (EPL) during January.
"It's a brand positioning statement," explained Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University in the UK.
"It's telling the world 'We're here and this is what we're doing,'" he told CNN. "In terms of China's reputation to be an important nation globally, to be good at football is a large part of that."
It is not only the total spent that is raising eyebrows, but who it is being spent on. That was exemplified by the most recent high-value purchase, when champions Guangzhou Evergrande paid Atletico Madrid €42m to acquire the services of 29 year-old Colombian striker Jackson Martinez.
Many of the players now arriving at Chinese clubs from European leagues and beyond are not at the end of the careers and looking for a quick payday – a trend still common in Major League Soccer in the US – but are younger and can still expect to play at international level.
The spending spree is in part being driven by television money – in October last year, private equity business China Media Capital paid US$1.2bn for the TV rights to the CSL for the next five years, a fivefold increase on what the state broadcaster CCTV had previously paid.
But the traffic is not all one way as Chinese firms are also buying into overseas clubs – in December, for example, CMC took a 13% stake in the business that owns EPL club Manchester City.
And, more controversially, last week Ledman, a Shenzhen-based LED-lighting manufacturer, signed a sponsorship deal with a Portuguese football league which included a requirement, since dropped, that at least one Chinese player appear in each of the league's top ten teams.
The spur for all this activity comes from a Communist Party committee headed by President Xi Jinping, which approved a 50-point plan to build China as a footballing power, including establishing 50,000 soccer schools within ten years and making the game compulsory for some elementary and middle-school students.
But Rowan Simons, author of a book on Chinese football, told AFP the national team would not significantly improve before Xi finished his two terms in office.
"That's how little time this new politically-led football revolution has to run... unless his successor is also a football fan," he said.
Data sourced from CNN, Yibada, AFP; additional content by Warc staff