Marko Arnautovic
Austrian Marko Arnautovic — wearing his new club’s jersey at an event held to introduce him at Shanghai SIPG — has switched English Premier League football for the Chinese Super League. Image Credit: AFP

Shanghai: Gareth Bale’s £1-million-a-week (Dh4.44 million) move from Real Madrid collapsed but Chinese football has re-emerged as a force in the global transfer market despite measures to rein in spending.

Marko Arnautovic, Salomon Rondon and Stephan El Shaarawy all landed in the Chinese Super League (CSL) during China’s summer transfer window, which closed on Wednesday.

There was a flurry of domestic transfers too, while Champions League-winning coach Rafael Benitez also arrived, taking over at Dalian Yifang.

Nearly €100 million was spent in transfer fees by CSL clubs, compared to the record €128 million (Dh519 million) splurged in the summer of 2016.

The Austrian forward Arnautovic was the biggest mover, swapping West Ham United for CSL champions Shanghai SIPG for 25 million euros.

But it was Bale’s proposed transfer to Jiangsu Suning which really made headlines and renewed fears about Chinese clubs distorting the transfer market with wages the rest cannot match.

The 30-year-old forward was all set to sign a handsomely paid three-year contract with Jiangsu, but Real pulled the plug at the last moment because of wrangling over the fee, a source told AFP.

Two years ago, after a series of record deals, the Chinese Football Association — at the behest of the government — slapped a 100 per cent tax on the transfers of incoming foreign players.

The prohibitive move worked: in the summer of 2017 the highest-profile arrival was Anthony Modeste on loan from Cologne.

The CFA brought in more cooling measures at the start of this year, including a cap on the wages of Chinese players and a limit on bonuses.

Clubs were also told that their annual expenditure could not exceed 1.2 billion yuan ($174 million) in 2019, which will decline to 900 million in 2021.

But in light of the latest transfer dealings, those measures were now “a pile of waste paper”, said a commentary in the Oriental Sports Daily.

Government’s ‘hidden hand’

Harry Belford Spencer, co-founder of First Pick Group, a Shanghai-based sports advisory company, said that the swingeing tax slapped on in 2017 has deterred CSL clubs from shelling out huge transfer fees.

Oscar’s €60-million move from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG in January 2017 remains a Chinese — and Asian — transfer record.

“The dust has settled and teams are now more savvy about their recruitment,” he said.

But the Shanghai-based Briton, who is involved in the Chinese transfer scene, said that CSL teams continue to offer wages that are two or even three times what players earn in Europe.

That is, however, different from the heady days of a few years ago, when salaries could be four of five times higher, he said.

William Bi, a Beijing-based sports expert, said this transfer window was the “hottest” since the winter of 2016.

“The football spending spree from the East seems to have resumed,” he said, agreeing with Spencer that Chinese clubs were now smarter in the market, buying players for footballing reasons rather than show and shunning has-beens looking for a final payday.

Bi believes that Chinese football will attract more highly rated coaches like Benitez because there is no transfer fee and clubs can justify the outlay on wages to the government, because having top-notch managers helps Chinese football.

“For financial reasons, it is still far away from claiming China is a big spender like three or four years ago,” said Bi.

“But for the time being, what we can feel is that the hidden hand (of the government) curbing football investment is gradually loosening.”