The Chinese Super League is a shell of its former self, where it was once a league known for splashing the cash on big-name signings at will.
The mid-to-late 2010s saw the league gain global attention for a number of signings of players with strong CVs and international recognition, with clubs spending far more than other competitors in an attempt to strengthen the league and improve its international appeal.
While things have trended downwards in the following years since the league continued to break records on almost a weekly basis, it is still nice to reflect on what the league once was and remember the very biggest moves made by clubs in the Middle Kingdom during that ‘golden era’.
The era of big-money moves initially came about after the likes of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka found themselves suiting up for Shanghai Shenhua in 2012, with much attention gained from big names heading over to China.
So, here are the Top 5 most expensive player signings in Chinese Super League history, with all figures courtesy of TransferMarkt.
5. Jackson Martinez, Guangzhou Evergrande, 2016
In the summer of 2015, Jackson Martinez was hot property in European football after scoring 92 goals in 132 games across all competitions for Portuguese club Porto. He was linked with moves to a number of top clubs across the continent before ultimately moving to the Spanish capital to join Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
The Columbian striker struggled to adapt to Simeone’s style, scoring just twice in 15 league games before he found himself involved in a then-Asian-record transfer to Guangzhou Evergrande in February 2016, moving for €42 million.
Life started well in the southern Chinese city, with Martinez scoring on his debut before scoring and providing an assist in his second-ever game in the Chinese Super League. However, things did not get any better from there and he suffered a number of ankle injuries that saw him play just 16 games in total in 2016, before missing the entirety of the 2017 season before finally moving back to Portugal with Portimonense, where he ended his career after two years.
4. Paulinho, Guangzhou Evergrande, 2019
Brazilian midfielder Paulinho is a certified legend for Guangzhou, after three successful spells with the club. After initially signing from Tottenham Hotspur and having a loan spell from Barcelona later on in his career, it was his permanent return to the club in 2019 that garnered a whopping €42 million transfer fee.
Paulinho had scored 28 goals in 95 games for Guangzhou Evergrande between 2015 and 2017 before earning his move to FC Barcelona, where he played for just one season, scoring nine goals in 34 league games, before returning to China on loan in 2018.
After scoring 13 goals in 19 games, Paulinho made the move back to China permanent for a deal that matched Jackson Martinez’s transfer fee three years later. He spent two more years in China, earning 34 goals in 62 total games for Guangzhou.
In total, Paulinho scored 75 goals and added 29 assists in 176 total appearances for the club across all three spells, but he won just one Chinese Super League title after his big-money move in 2019, with the other six cups and titles coming in his first spell at the club.
He left for Saudi Arabia in 2021 and now plays for Corinthians back in his native Brazil.
3. Alex Teixeira, Jiangsu Suning, 2016
Jackson Martinez’s move to Guangzhou Evergrande set an Asian transfer record in 2016, but it was broken just two days later when Jiangsu Suning announced the €50 million signing of Brazilian forward Alex Teixeira.
Teixeira was hot property after years of top performances for Shakhtar Donetsk, with Liverpool reportedly keen on bringing him to Anfield. Shakhtar reportedly rejected their bid and the forward ultimately moved to Jiangsu for nearly €20 million more than the English club were offering.
Between 2016 and 2021, Teixeira was a top player in the Chinese Super League and made 153 total appearances for Jiangsu, scoring 73 goals and providing a further 43 assists. He helped guide the club to their first-ever Chinese Super League title in 2020, but his time in China ended in misery as the club’s financial situation saw him released before the club ultimately folded after parent company Suning’s decision to withdraw financial support.
Teixeira moved to Beşiktaş before joining Vasco de Gama in 2022.
2. Hulk, Shanghai SIPG, 2016
2016 truly was the pinnacle of Chinese football spending, with the Asian transfer record broken multiple times that year, with the highest fee coming during the summer transfer window when Brazilian striker Hulk joined Shanghai SIPG for €56 million.
Hulk spent four-and-a-half seasons playing in China’s largest city, between 2016 and 2020, picking up 76 goals and 54 assists in 145 total appearances. He helped SIPG halt Guangzhou Evergrande’s league dominance with a Chinese Super League title in 2018, followed up by the Chinese FA Super Cup the following season.
His best season came in 2017, where he had 55 goal contributions, including 30 of his own, in 44 total appearances for the club, finishing runners-up in the league, Chinese FA Cup and even reaching the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League.
He left to join Atlético Mineiro in 2021, where he has played over 100 games and scored 60 league goals since returning to his home country.
1. Oscar, Shanghai SIPG, 2017
The highest fee ever paid in the Chinese Super League is for a player that remains in the league even to this day, with €60 million spent by Shanghai SIPG back in 2017 for Brazilian midfielder Oscar.
Oscar had been a regular feature for Chelsea between 2012 and 2017, winning two Premier League titles, a League Cup and Europa League before making his big-money move over to China, where he continues to play for the now-named Shanghai Port.
Oscar played a key role in the team’s Chinese Super League triumph in 2018, followed up by the Chinese FA Super Cup in 2019, and he is coming up to 200 total appearances for the club, with 56 goals and an impressive 102 assists to his name at the time of writing.
He was named captain of the team and continues to don the armband in the 2023 season, which surprised many after it looked as if he would be departing the club after the 2022 campaign saw him miss the majority of the year.
However, he has the club battling at the top of the table for what could be his second Chinese Super League, with the red side of Shanghai viewed as the favourites for the title if they can hold off the surprising resurgence of bitter rivals Shanghai Shenhua this year.