In the years since the country’s first and, to date, only FIFA World Cup™ appearance in 2002, China PR has spent most of its time in the footballing shadows. With the recent rise of the Chinese Super League, however, the world's most populous country has once again been thrust into the limelight - thanks largely to a clutch of extravagant, eye-catching imports.
Until recently, C-League teams had never been considered among Asia’s wealthiest or best-supported. But with the country's rapid economic progress has come huge investment in its top clubs, and these sides have been battling it out for some bona fide global stars. Big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande, for example, now boast the likes of two-time Brazilian league MVP Dario Conca and former Borussia Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios, while Didier Drogba is to join his former Chelsea team-mate Nicolas Anelka next month at Shanghai Shenhua.
Lesser-known teams are getting in on the act too, with Henan Construction bringing in Christopher Katongo, the Zambia captain who steered his side to the title of this year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations. And the star names on the pitch are matched by those in the dugout, with 13 clubs in the hands of renowned foreign managers from ten different countries, three of whom boast FIFA World Cup experiences.
Former Japan coach Takeshi Okada took over Hangzhou Greentown at the beginning of this year and Costa Rican Alexandre Guimaraes was recently handed the reigns at Tianjin Teda. Most eye-catching of all, of course, is FIFA World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, who last month replaced Korean Lee Jang-Soo at Evergrande.
The Chinese fans have responded to these ambitions, with thousands lured back to the stadiums as the league once again dominated the national sports headlines. On the field, Lippi’s Evergrande stormed into the last eight in the AFC Champions League in their continental debut - the first time a Chinese club to has reached the knockout stage since Shanghai Shenhua in 2006.
Such achievements have earned praise from Mr Wei Di, vice-president and general secretary of the Chinese Football Association (CFA). "The importing of high-level coaches and players can help lift entire clubs in technical and tactical terms," the 57-year-old told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "This is a fact proved by Evergrande and other leading clubs. The CFA encourages these qualified imports, which not only benefit the respective clubs but also help Chinese football in the long run."
I want to get more people involved in the sport over there and I want to help build a relationship between China and Africa.
As one would expect of such a varied collection of star names, their motivations for moving to the far east differ vastly, as FIFA.com has discovered. Even before his arrival at Shanghai, Anelka spoke of a long-held obsession with east Asian culture and the Chinese way of life. In the case of Katongo, his thinking was more straightforward. "As a professional footballer I am always ready to take the chance as it comes," he said. Okada, meanwhile, moved to China simply because he "wanted a change of situation".
Sharing this view is Lippi, who came to China hoping to write a new chapter in his coaching career. "I wish to enjoy a fresh period here," the former Juventus and Italy manager told the local press, "I have lost interest in coaching in Italy, so I hope I can experience something new."
Drogba, who stirred arguably the biggest-ever media reaction in China when he signed a deal with Shanghai hot off his UEFA Champions League-winning performance with Chelsea, sees an opportunity to build the game – and build bridges between continents. "I want to get more people involved in the sport over there and I want to help build a relationship between China and Africa,” said the Ivorian. “I think that's very important for the future.”
As well as being satisfied by the raising of the C-League’s profile thanks to these big-name imports, Wei Di has been quick to dismiss the concerns that local players will suffer as a consequence. As he explained: "We employ a three-plus-one policy which allows each club to have no more than four foreign players, so local players will still be dominant. In rubbing shoulders with these imported stars, Chinese players will be motivated to learn from them and do their best to compete for a starting place. It is also a good opportunity for our home-grown coaches to exchange experiences with these world-famous coaches and to improve their knowhow in the process.”