Football in Asia has, to a degree, often been sneered at by the major leagues of Europe and America.
Aside perhaps from South Korea and Japan, teams from the region rarely make a splash at the World Cup and their domestic divisions are seen as somewhere for players to go for a payday, rather than to progress their career. Even as far back as the early nineties, when Gary Lineker moved to Grampus 8 in Japan, the level of football was generally regarded as inferior.
With OdionIghalo recently moving from China to the UK, those preconceptions are changing. Ighalo, who enjoyed a stay with Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, reportedly rejected Barcelona to move to China. He came back to Manchester United and has been a success, with Goal explaining how he was close to breaking a 95-year-old record at Old Trafford.
The current big-spending league is the Chinese Super League, with some big names in world football going over to compete there. It is a division few mainstream football fans will understand well, aside from assuming players have headed there for a big payday. However, despite the fan culture being quite different, the league is thriving. There is no betting culture, something which can help drive a league’s popularity domestically. Expatbets, which has numerous articles on China, outlines how sports wagers are illegal in the country unless you are in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. That has not dulled the growth of the CSL though, which has seen a strong fanbase grow up courtesy of the huge sums of money clubs are prepared to pay to attract top stars.
So with that in mind, we have selected four players who could certainly still cut it in any of Europe’s top divisions, but who are earning huge sums over in the CSL.
Oscar – €400,000 per week (£363,000)
The 28-year-old Brazilian is well known to fans of the English game, having spent four years at Chelsea. During that time, he won the Premier League twice and the Europa League. He received 47 caps for his country too, bagging five goals.
However, he opted to move to the CSL in 2016, joining Shanghai SIPG. He has since lifted the title once but has fallen out of contention with his national side as a result. He won’t mind though, he earns around €400,000 (£363,000) per week according to Statista, making him the best-paid player in China.
Cedric Bakambu – €375,000 per week (£341,000)
The name Cedric Bakambu might not be familiar to English supporters; he played much of his football in France and Spain before moving to Beijing Guoan. He was named in the Europa League Team of the Season in 2015/16, appearing for Villarreal in their semi-final defeat against Liverpool.
The striker appeared for France as a youth, but later representing DR Congo, for whom he is still a regular. His Chinese move certainly brought him in line with some of the best-earning players in the world, with his salary reported to be around €375,000 per week (£341,000).
Hulk – €320,000 per week (£293,000)
During spells in Russia and Portugal, Hulk won five domestic titles, eight domestic cups and a Europa League, making him hot property. He was also capped 47 times by Brazil, lifting the Confederations Cup in 2013 in the same team as Oscar. Like his fellow Brazilian, he moved to China in 2016 and did not feature again for his country.
He is a teammate of Oscar at Shanghai SIPG, winning the CSL title in 2018. At 33-years-old, he is unlikely to feature in a major European league again and is likely to end his career in China.
Graziano Pelle – €290,000 per week (£263,000)
Italian striker Pelle could best be described as a journeyman, playing in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands before arriving at Southampton in 2014. He had played for his country too but thrived in England. He scored five goals in 10 matches for Italy whilst at St Mary’s, but like Oscar and Hulk, his move to China killed his international career.
It is unlikely to be of concern to the 34-year-old, who has bagged 54 goals in 110 outings for Shandong Luneng, including 27 in 40 games in 2019. That earned him a spot in the CSL Team of the Season, although his side finished fifth, outside the AFC Champions League qualification spots.