Cristiano Ronaldo’s headline-grabbing arrival at Al Nassr on a bumper pay deal captured global attention last month, but in an alternate world, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner may well have been destined for a move further east.
The Portuguese striker’s Saudi Arabia switch following the cancellation of his Manchester United contract has highlighted a shift within Asian football that started before the COVID-19 pandemic and which continues to have a significant impact.
With money pouring into clubs often owned by debt-fuelled property developers, the Chinese Super League (CSL) had been enticing an increasing number of leading players and coaches to the country since early last decade.
Shanghai SIPG’s 2016 signing of Brazilian duo Oscar and Hulk for combined transfer fees of 130 million euros ($141.27 million) highlighted the intent of a league that had already attracted World Cup-winning coaches Marcello Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Carlos Tevez’s arrival at Shanghai Shenhua soon after on a rumoured 600,000 pounds ($743,820.00) per week only confirmed China’s status as football’s latest El Dorado.
Authorities concerned about overspending tightened regulations but did little to cool speculation that the game’s biggest names were China-bound and it came as little surprise when both Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were linked with CSL clubs.
Ronaldo in particular was connected time and again with a move east, with fast-rising, big-spending Tianjin Quanjian touted in 2018 as a possible destination after the forward’s agent Jorge Mendes was pictured with the club’s owner.
Five years later, however, much has changed.
Tianjin were among the first of a raft of CSL clubs to close due to financial or legal issues, with Wuhan Yangtze the latest to shut this week.
The downturn in Chinese football has spared few.
Jiangsu Suning, owned by one of the country’s leading retailers, dissolved in early 2021, months after winning the CSL title for the first time.
Two-time Asian champions Guangzhou FC, once Chinese football’s dominant force, went into decline after their owners, developers China Evergrande, were forced to limit funding after the government restricted borrowing.
China’s draconian zero-COVID policy only heightened challenges for Chinese clubs.
Talent has drained from the CSL into the Saudi Pro League, with the competition’s leading scorers - Al Nassr’s Anderson Talisca, Abderrazak Hamdallah at Al Ittihad and Odion Ighalo of Al Hilal - all having previously played in China.
Saudi Arabia harbours significant ambitions with the country due to host the 2027 Asian Cup, while launching a bid to organise the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup.
Those moves come after China was forced last year to relinquish the rights to the 2023 Asian Cup as its zero-COVID policy had no end in sight at the time.
While restrictions were finally relaxed last month in a dramatic u-turn, significant damage has been done to football in China.
With attention now squarely focused on the oil-funded riches on offer in a newly assertive Saudi Arabia, Chinese football’s lustre has all but disappeared.