The Chinese Super League is set to continue grabbing the headlines over the coming weeks as more and more high profile players are linked with big money moves eastwards.
Oscar has already left Chelsea for around £60m, following a growing trend that saw Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Hulk and others head to China earlier this year.
It is clear that Chinese football is growing and will be a world power in the future, so it’s time to start learning more about it.
Here’s a look at seven things you probably didn’t know about the Chinese Super League…
1. It Began in 2004
While still relatively young in the historical context of global football, the Chinese Super League is not some kind of brand new invention of the last couple of years off the back of the investment suddenly being pumped into football in the country.
The league has its roots in the now defunct Chinese Jia-A League that was set up in the late 1980s. After Jia-A became beset by problems, a decision to start a fresh professional league was made in 2002, the same year that the national team competed at the World Cup finals for the first time.
The inaugural Chinese Super League season was played in 2004 and was won by Shenzhen Jianlibao.
2. There Are Actually 16 Teams
You may be forgiven for thinking that the league is quite small because it is the same group of teams that are heard of over and over again in the context of big money transfers – Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua, Jiangsu Suning, Beijing Guoan to name the main protagonists – all the while with the false implication that the Chinese government is bankrolling every team.
But clubs like Yanbian Funde, Henan Jianye, Liaoning Whowin (pictured), Changchun Yatai, Tianjin TEDA and others have tended to go under the radar in Europe.
3. It Is Dominated by One Club
As has been the case in Italy and Germany in recent seasons, the Chinese Super League trophy is very much the property of one dominant club right now: Guangzhou Evergrande.
Guangzhou have been champions six times on the spin since claiming their first title in 2011 and have even conquered Asia by winning the AFC Champions League in two of the last four years.
The club is currently managed by World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and, despite the expensive presence of Jackson Martinez and Paulinho in the squad, Chinese living legend Zheng Zhi, formerly of Charlton Athletic and Celtic, is the star and captain.
4. There Are Strict Caps on Foreign Players
Contrary to growing beliefs, the Chinese Super League is not about to become saturated with foreign stars flocking to Asia from Europe because current rules won’t allow it.
Restrictions on overseas players have been put in place so that local Chinese talent is protected. The quotas on foreigners were last updated in 2009 when it was decided that clubs can only have four overseas players plus one extra from another Asian country in their squads. For actual games, that is reduced to being permitted to use ‘3 + 1’ foreign players.
It’s the kind of approach that should ultimately benefit the national team in the long run.
5. Efforts Are Made to Recognise Chinese Players
Despite foreign imports earning the big contracts and attracting the interest, efforts are still made to promote and recognise domestic players and their achievements.
As is the case in Spain, where only one Spanish player has been La Liga’s top scorer (Pichichi Trophy) since 2002, there is a separate Golden Boot award presented each season to the top scoring Chinese player.
Shanghai SIPG winger Wu Lei has won it in each of the last four seasons, scoring between 12 and 15 goals every time. Incidentally, he is SIPG’s all-time top goalscorer and is also the youngest ever to play a professional game in China after making his debut in 2006 at the age of 14-years and 287 days.
6. There Is One Englishman in the League
The only Englishman currently playing in the Chinese Super League is a player by the name of Jack Sealy, a right-back who was once earning £20-per-week playing non-league football in the Bristol area before getting his chance in China. Now he earns up to £10k-a-week.
Although born in London, Sealy actually grew up in Hong Kong and began his youth football career there – he even represents the territory at international level. It was only while attending university in Bristol that he tried to make it as a footballer in England, but he returned home to Hong Kong unsuccessful and signed professionally with the Sun Hei club.
That was followed by a spell with another Hong Kong side, South China, before Changchun Yatai of the Super League signed Sealy earlier this year.
7. Attendances Are Healthy and Growing
This is not simply a big money pit where expensive stars play in empty stadiums.
While the big European leagues remain immensely popular in China, average domestic attendances across the Chinese Super League as a whole have been steadily growing since 2004 and have shot up from 18,500 in 2013 to 24,000 in 2016.
During the 2016 season, Guangzhou Evergrande brought in average home crowds of close to 45,000, which is roughly comparable to what Liverpool were getting at Anfield before the recent improvements were carried out. Beijing Guoan had a season average of 38,114 in 2016, while the majority of clubs’ attendances fell between 11,000 and 28,000.
Some clubs even have European style ‘Ultras’.