While western media is focused on the big names signings that seem to be arriving to the Chinese Super League by the day, what so many are missing is that one of the key factors driving these moves is the equally overheated and overpriced domestic transfer market.
Previous record transfer for domestic players hovered around RMB30 million ($4.5 million) for a number of years, but that was always for players who were established internationals known as some of the country’s top players. We previously looked at the transfer phenomenon in 2013 and saw it as a bubble then, but that bubble has grown exponentially since then. This season has seen Shanghai Shenhua pay RMB80 million (over $12.1 million) for Bi Jinhao, a 25 year old with only a single national team appearance, who failed to make an impact as a striker and who only started playing in defense last season. Tianjin Quanjian, a nouveau riche club from China’s lower division with more money than sense, dropped RMB70 million ($10.6 million) on 28 year old goalkeeper Zhang Lu, a thoroughly average player with only two national team appearances to his name when only two years ago Chinese number one Wang Dalei moved for half that.
The bubble nature of the domestic transfer market has all but halted any Chinese players moving clubs. With Chinese footballing talent limited, the price for national team players, always at a premium, has now skyrocketed as clubs have failed to lure players like Ren Hang and Zhang Chengdong away with bids in the RMB200-300 million range ($30-40 million). Top sides like Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guoan have yet to bring in a single domestic player while big spenders Jiangsu Sainty have only brought in one, a goalkeeper. Guangzhou Evergrande and Shandong Luneng have avoided the bubble by focusing on the large number of young Chinese players training in Europe, mostly with Portuguese sides, bringing these players back to China for far less. At this point, only newly promoted Yanbian has used all five of its domestic transfer spots.
Since Evergrande’s rise in 2011, China’s domestic and international transfer market has grown rapidly as the club seems to have unlimited money resources and other top sides have tried to keep up. The quality (and price) paid for foreign players has also consistently gone up in recent years. What’s different this year is that European clubs are now more aware of the CSL and clubs are getting more offers at the same time as new clubs hope to challenge. SIPG emerged as a big spender last season and this year, Jiangsu’s new sponsors Suning have high hopes for the club as they attempt to challenge in the league and ACL, while newly promoted Hebei wants their time in the CSL to last beyond one season. With the domestic transfer market overheated and clubs not willing to sell at any price, teams have to spend their entire transfer kitty on their four non-Asian foreigners and thus have tried to find players who could make the most impact, even if it meant spending over the market price to bring them to China.
Chinese clubs aren’t done yet, as more players from top European sides are expected to end up in the CSL this season, but whether this is only a temporary change or a new normal will be decided both by the performances of these new arrivals and if domestic transfer fees revert to the mean.