A joke about football is circulating in China lately: the head coach of the Brazilian national team Tite must have to get up in the early morning to watch Chinese Super League (CSL) matches, because an increasing number of elite Brazilian players, including Oscar, Hulk and Ramires have elected to play in the Asian country.
In fact, the joke is becoming a partial reality. Chinese media has reported that the Selecao coaching staff will visit the training centers of CSL teams Beijing Guoan and Shandong Luneng's Spain this week, inspecting defender Gil and midfielder Augusto's performance to help set a squad for the coming 2018 World Cup qualifying matches next month.
China attracted a great deal of global attention last year with many top footballers moving to the CSL or even the second-tier League One. This transfer stream resulted in a boom in the spending of Chinese clubs to 451.3 million US dollars in 2016, according to a report released last month by FIFA, almost 17 times the figure seen in 2013 and 344.4% more than the rest of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). China has broken into the top five buyers of international footballers for the first time, behind only England, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Some commenters have even criticized the CSL as somewhat of a "nursing home" for foreign players, since only veterans would feasibly want play in China in pursuit of money, citing names such as Droba, Robinho, and Demba Ba.
But recently, a huge amount of investment has attracted many young talents. Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex Teixeira, 27 years old, snubbed Premier League club Liverpool to join CSL side Jiangsu Suning one year ago. The same story happened again this winter, when 28-year-old Belgian international Axel Witsel turned down an invitation from Italian Serie A champions Juventus, moving to recently-promoted CSL team Tianjin Quanjian. When asked for the reason behind the move, the former Zenit playmaker admitted that money is a key factor.
What's more, the transfer record for Chinese clubs has been broken five times in the past 12 months. The latest record was set by Brazilian international Oscar, who joined Shanghai SIPG in a deal reported to be worth 64 million US dollars. Meanwhile, SIPG's city rivals Shanghai Shenhua reportedly made Argentine Manchester United and Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez the world's highest-paid player.
The FIFA report also pointed out that the skyrocketing spending of Chinese clubs is "unprecedented."
"One of the key objectives fuelling China's transfer drive is to raise the overall standard of football in the country so as to assist the national team in reaching the FIFA World Cup for only the second time in their history following their debut in 2002," the world football governing body said.
But the trajectory of spending is expected to change in the near future. The dramatic spending splurge by Chinese clubs will soon be reined in, with the Chinese Football Association (CFA) introducing policies to curb the number of foreign players in the leagues and cut down their salaries.
According to the country's football oversight body, top-flight CSL sides are still allowed to have a maximum of five foreign players when the new season begins in March, but only three can register in match-day rosters. Previously, four non-Chinese players could take the field at one time, including one from an Asian Football Confederation country. This "Asian quota" will be abandoned under the new policy.
In addition, the leagues will mandate a certain proportion of club expenditures for player compensation.
Clubs have responded to the new measures by announcing their intentions to make changes in the future. Six-time defending CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande announced plans on Tuesday to field a local-player-only squad by 2020, after years of success fueled by big-money foreign signings.
"In my view, the ideal all-Chinese squad for Evergrande is composed of a world top manager and all native players," club boss Xu Jiayin said.
"Our purpose... is to contribute to the development of Chinese football and all our work needs to be focused on this," Xu added.