Long before the days of Saudi Arabia shaking the integrity of European football at its core, the Chinese Super League was doing the very same thing, poaching some of the biggest players in Europe.
But while many fear that Saudi’s footballing project is one that will stick around for longer and prove more successful, the same cannot be said for the fortunes of China’s experiment.
Their aim was to establish the nation as a footballing superpower and – in turn – an economic superpower, with Xi Jinping harbouring hopes of China hosting and winning the World Cup through such huge investment. Shock – it didn’t happen.
Instead, many of the big names who left for China returned to Europe with their tail between their legs after becoming disillusioned and/or making their fortune before funding was pulled and the Chinese Super League imploded. Here are nine examples.
One of football’s great mercenaries in recent times, Arnautovic is a professional hater. He doesn’t care who he upsets or how, which was evident when he forced his way out of West Ham to sign for Shanghai SiPG (now Shanghai Port) in 2019.
He lasted just two years before packing his bags once again, returning to Europe with Bologna in Serie A and almost getting a move to Manchester United in 2022.
The Belgian midfield destroyer has enjoyed an interesting career path. After a strong start at Standard Liege, he lasted just one season at Benfica before heading to Zenit in 2012, where he established himself as one of Europe’s hottest talents.
But just as his stock was rising, Witsel opted for a move to China in 2017, when he could’ve had his pick of the bunch in Europe. He only lasted around 18 months at Tianjin Quanjian, though, before being brought back to Europe by Borussia Dortmund.
He moved to Atletico Madrid in 2022. An upside-down career path if ever we’ve seen one.
Ba’s career at the top level unravelled quite tremendously after leaving Chelsea in 2014. One prolific season at Besiktas earned him a big-money move to Shanghai Shenhua in 2015.
He’d spent three years there, going back to Besiktas on loan in January 2017, before leaving to head to Turkey once again with Goztepe in January 2018 on a free transfer.
By June, he was headed back to Shanghai Shenhua for a second spell. You’ll never guess which league he then went back to in 2019. Turkey? How did you know!
He then wrapped up his career with a random, singular season in Switzerland. Got all that? No, us neither.
Pelle’s sudden move to Shandong Luneng in 2016 was a sad one for Premier League enthusiasts and Southampton fans alike.
He spent four years in China, before returning to his homeland in 2021 to sign for Parma before retiring. We’re still not over that two-year stint with The Saints, though.
An exceptionally bizarre deal that still boggles the mind to this day, Barcelona paid a rather jaw-dropping €40million to sign Paulinho from Guangzhou Evergrande in 2017, who themselves only paid €14million for the midfielder in 2015.
But it gets weirder. After one season in Barcelona, Paulinho headed back to Guangzhou Evergrande on a season-long loan, which was made permanent in January 2019 for €42 million.
We’re no finance experts, but something definitely smelled off with that entire ordeal.
Doing it before it became cool, Drogba bowed out from Chelsea in 2012 after firing the club to its first-ever Champions League, by running off into the Chinese sunset.
He signed for Shanghai Shenhua, but only lasted one season before moving to Galatasaray for 2013-14. He would then sensationally return to Chelsea in 2014-15, reuniting with Jose Mourinho and helping them to the Premier League title. Football heritage.
Carrasco had quietly been putting together a reputation as a blossoming winger at the top level of European football with Atletico Madrid, so to see him make the move to China in 2018 felt rather seismic.
He lasted just two years at Dalian Professional, however, returning to Atleti initially on loan in 2020, before making the deal permanent.
The Nigerian forward left the Premier League with a pretty strong reputation in 2017 after three brilliant years at Watford, with Changchun Yatai paying £20million to snap him up halfway through the 2016-17 campaign.
Ighalo would continue to score at an impressive rate in the Chinese Super League and joined Shanghai Shenhua in 2019, but suddenly dropped everything at the beginning of 2020 when Manchester United made a loan offer for the Nigerian.
With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in desperate need of a striker and the budget not there to spend big in January, Ighalo came in on loan and enjoyed an impressive half-season stint, considering it was interrupted by the COVID-19 lockdown. His loan was extended through to the beginning of 2021, when United finally waved goodbye to the first Nigerian to play for their club.
𝗢𝘂𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗴𝗲𝗼𝘂𝘀 from Odion Ighalo! 🔥🔥🔥
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) March 12, 2020
Known best for his mammoth stint with Napoli – and his ridiculous haircut – Hamsik waved goodbye to Serie A after 12 years in Naples in 2019, leaving dor Dalian Professional as their all-time appearance maker.
In 2021, though, he returned to European football with IFK Goteburg in a bid to make the Slovakia squad for Euro 2020. He did, and spent a further two years playing at Trabzonspor before retiring in 2023.