For years, China and the Chinese Super League were known as the place where players went for a major payday – and big names went there from clubs like Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
Leaving elite European football behind, countless players of varying abilities sought to make some serious money in the far east, often being heavily criticised by the fans they left behind in the process.
Chinese clubs like Guangzhou, Shanghai Port and more had seemingly endless amounts of money pumped into them as China sought to become one of the best footballing nations in the world.
It was all part of a ridiculously ambitious programme set out by the Chinese Football Association in 2016 that sought to make good on President Xi Jinping’s desire for China to win the World Cup by 2030. It included plans to have a football pitch for every 10,000 people, with an ambition of having 50million people actively playing the sport in the country.
Safe to say, eight years on from the publication of the Football Association’s programme, things haven’t quite gone to plan. China once again failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2022, finishing fifth out of six in their third-round qualifying group for Qatar.
As a result, the investments in the game are drying up fast. But who were the 10 most expensive purchases in the history of the Chinese Super League and how did they fare in the country?
10. Marko Arnautovic
Arnautovic’s desire to leave West Ham boiled over into a messy divorce in January 2019.
The Austria international demanded to be sold after the club rejected numerous bids for him, and eventually, he went to Shanghai SIPG (now Shanghai Port) for a reported fee of £22.5million.
Such was the extent of the bad feelings between the two parties, West Ham did not even include a thank you in their announcement.
The reason he wanted to leave was obvious, with his wage reportedly hitting £10million annually in China.
He scored 19 goals in 28 Chinese Super League appearances but after leaving to join Bologna at the start of the 2021-22 season, he openly admits he didn’t take the league seriously.
“I underestimated it. I didn’t train. I didn’t look after my body.” he said of his time in the Chinese Super League.
“I was eating. I was drinking fizzy drinks – Sprite, Coca Cola, Fanta – all these sugar drinks that are not good for the body.
“I woke up three, four o’clock in the afternoon, went to training, stayed up again all night, eating at wrong times.”
Marko Arnautovic can't stop scoring in China! pic.twitter.com/oTSRUG7k9g
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) August 14, 2019
Ramires won everything with Chelsea so when a big payday with the now-defunct Jiangsu Suning came up we’re not sure too many could begrudge him.
The Brazilian cost £25million and did… not much. He scored just 11 and assisted five times in the league in almost 50 appearances across three years.
He’s not officially retired but hasn’t been with a club since Palmerias released him in 2020 and it’s safe to say his footballing days are probably behind him.
8. Anthony Modeste
Between 2015 and 2017, Modeste became one of Germany’s most potent goalscorers.
He scored an incredible 40 goals for Koln across two Bundesliga seasons, including 25 in 2016-17. No one who saw his torrid loan spell at Blackburn Rovers in 2012 could have ever predicted it.
Was a move to a bigger European team on the cards? Of course, it was but Tianjin then offered both him and the club huge swathes of money.
Except things from this point didn’t exactly go smoothly. He was first loaned to the Chinese club for two years with the option to buy… which was activated almost immediately, paying Koln £26million. It probably came in clean unmarked bills.
In 2018, Modeste went AWOL until he turned up signing a new contract with, you guessed it, Koln. He was still under contract in China but sued his old club to cancel his contract there. He, in turn, was counter-sued.
Such was the chaos it took the ex-president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, to ensure that things were resolved and he could play for Koln.
Tianjin? Well, they got accused of being involved in some multi-level marketing scheme and went out of business in 2020. We like to think Modeste planned their downfall himself.
7. Yannick Carrasco
“Hang on a minute, doesn’t he still play for Atletico Madrid?” we hear you say. Yes, but he’s on what is technically his third stint with the club.
Despite only being 24 years old at the time, the Belgium international signed for Chinese side Dalian Professional in 2018 for £27million.
The move was made more suspect by the fact Dalian were owned by a Chinese company called the Wanda group, who also partially owned Atletico Madrid (yes, that’s why it’s the Wanda Metropolitano).
But that also made it easy for him to come back to Atletico in 2020, first on loan and then permanently for pretty much the same fee as before.
Despite regularly admitting that he wanted to return to Europe, his record in China was pretty impressive as he registered 24 goals and 17 assists in 50 league matches.
Yannick Carrasco scoring direct from a corner for Dalian Yifang. 👀 pic.twitter.com/ucZIfztzKX
— Arsenal FC News (@ArsenalFC_fl) July 21, 2019
6. Cedric Bakambu
Bakambu’s transfer from Villarreal to Beijing Guoan featured more than a little creative accounting.
Villarreal announced his departure in 2018 for a huge £36million (their reinvestment of which has had no small part in helping them to a Champions League semi-final), but Guoan failed to announce his purchase for some weeks after.
They were trying to avoid paying a 100% tax on any foreign arrivals that cost over a certain amount, but there was one problem: he had already played and scored.
Eventually, they paid the tax and Bakambu went on to help them win the CFA Cup in his first season. He also scored 48 Chinese Super League goals before returning to Europe with Marseille in 2022.
5. Jackson Martinez
The year is 2015, you’ve loaded up FIFA Ultimate team, managed to scramble together the coins, and put together an absolutely overpowered cheap Portuguese League team.
Front and centre of that was none other than Jackson Martinez, who dominated the Portuguese league in real life just as he did in the game.
He went and ruined it of course. From 67 league goals in 90 appearances for Porto between 2012 and 2015 to just two in 15 in one disastrous season with Atletico Madrid. Then in 2016, Guangzhou Evergrande paid an inexplicably huge £37.8million for him.
He became a Chinese champion that year, scoring four goals in 10 league games, but he failed to make another appearance at all for the club over the next three years after an ankle injury. He stayed on the sidelines whilst earning a reported €12million a year and was heavily criticised for not making the effort to get fit.
He later had his contract terminated and joined Portomiense for free, where he played for two more goal-shy seasons before retiring in 2020.
Paulinho was just another one of those Premier League flops signing for a Chinese Super League side when he joined Guangzhou from Tottenham in 2015 for about £12million.
But here’s the thing, unlike almost everyone else on this list Paulinho earnt himself a huge career move out of China on merit. He signed for Barcelona for £36million just 18-months after joining the Chinese side, having established himself as the best player in the country.
He won La Liga and Copa del Rey in his only Barcelona season before being loaned back to Guangzhou, who bought him back for £37.8million.
The midfielder won his third Chinese Super League title during his second spell at the club before leaving China for good in 2021.
Remember Paulinho of Tottenham? He just scored this unbelievable free kick with his new team Guangzhou. pic.twitter.com/6Fc0YpZTIC
— Football Shop (@FootballShopLB) August 25, 2015
3. Alex Teixeira
Teixeira was one of Shakhtar Donetsk’s stand out Brazilian players and his move to Jiangsu Suning certainly raised a few eyebrows.
He had previously been linked with Liverpool in January 2016 and Jiangsu Suning spent £45milion on the attacking midfielder a few weeks later.
The 32-year-old did well in China, winning the league in 2020… just before his team went bust and he had to leave on a free transfer.
Hulk by name, Hulk by nature. He cost Shanghai Port a ridiculous £50million to sign him from St Petersburg in 2016.
The forward scored 77 goals in 145 appearances for the club, helping them win the Chinese Super League and Chinese FA Super Cup before returning to Brazil in 2021.
Oh, and he’s been pretty good there too.
We know why Oscar left Chelsea in January 2017 for Shanghai Port, but even if he is receiving all the money in the world it doesn’t make the decision any more palatable.
The £54million that was paid to Chelsea for his signature is by far the most on this list, and it will likely not be topped in the history of Chinese football, at least for a long, long time.
It’s hard not to look at it as a wasted talent, but there is an understandable element to why he made the decision he did.
“I came from a social background in Brazil that is very poor. We didn’t have anything,” he said a few years ago. “This is the fruit of my work and when I earn this, it is because I conquered it.
“China has incredible financial power and sometimes makes offers that players can’t refuse.”
The midfielder has talked a lot about potentially returning to Chelsea at some point, but he’s contracted until 2024 and something big would have to happen for that to occur.
Still, he has incredible numbers for Shanghai: 170 games, 50 goals and (brace yourself) 93 assists while winning the Chinese Super League once. Eye-watering stats, just like the amount of money he earns.
By Patrick Ryan