Big-money signs show Asian football clout
This time of year always brings European clubs to Asia, building their brand and meeting local fans, but on current trends they may soon become worried that future visits will lead to the poaching of their best players.
The growing financial clout of Asian clubs was highlighted this month when Guangzhou Evergrande smashed China's transfer record, spending $10 million to sign Dario Conca from Fluminense and making the Argentine reportedly the third-highest paid player in the world.
The signing of the two-time Brazilian player of the year was the latest in an audacious string of signings by the Chinese Super League leaders, who are backed by the wealthy Evergrande Real Estate Group.
In February, Guangzhou spent $4.5 million to buy Brazilian striker Cleo, who had scored 14 goals in 16 European Champions League games for leading Serbian club Partizan Belgrade.
''For sure, the money from Evergrande is very large as far as Im concerned, the money is good, so in the end I have accepted Evergrande's offer,'' Conca said.
''I was also impressed with Evergrande's sincerity. Besides helping to improve the teams results, I hope I can help improve and raise the image of Chinese football around the world.''
While clubs in Asia may not yet have the history or glamor of the likes of Real Madrid or Chelsea, Philippe Troussier, coach of Chinese Super League team Shenzhen Ruby, told The Associated Press that Asian clubs will soon have pockets just as deep.
''One or two years ago, there was trouble in China with match-fixing and the fans stopped coming. Now we have to make a new way forward and this is good news and a good way to get people back.''
The plan is working so far, with Guangzhou - promoted just last season and unbeaten in 2011 - boasting average attendances of 45,000.
Beijing averages around 40,000 with Shanxi Chanba at 38,000. Despite the increase in interest and wealth, Troussier, the former national team coach of Japan, South Africa and Nigeria, believes that the big signings are just a first step on a long journey.
''In China, football is not yet the number one sport. To help football we have to attract good players,'' said the Frenchman.
''In Guangzhou now, these new players will help the team win the title even more comfortably. Next season, they will help the team perform well in the Asian Champions League and then you can keep attracting better players. In football you need to have dreams and to achieve a dream is a long process and buying quality players from overseas is part of that process.''
If Conca is as successful as Cleo - joint top scorer in the 2011 season - has been, Guangzhou fans will enjoy a second half of the season as good as the first. With the lucrative salaries on offer, overseas players are finding it easier to settle in China.
''It's no problem not playing in the European Champions league,'' Cleo told local media. ''The Asian Champions League is as competitive. I am embracing the new challenges.''
While Guangzhou is easily the biggest spender, other teams are also attracting overseas talent.
Dalian Shide paid a reported $3.8 million for Brazilian striker Adriano while Jiangsu laid out $2 million on former Serbia international Aleksandar Jevtic from Red Star Belgrade.
Ex-Scottish national team striker Derek Riordian - the third-highest scorer in Scottish Premier League history - turned down moves to England to sign for Shaanxi Chanba in a big-money deal while Beijing Guoan signed two Senegalese players from Portugal's top tier.
In terms of star quality, no signing was bigger than the move of former England and Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler to Thailand champions Muang Thong United.
Fowler, 36, scored 163 goals for Liverpool, Leeds United and Manchester City between 1993 and 2007 in the English Premier League; the fourth highest total since the competition started in 1992.
Since leaving England, Fowler had spent two moderately successful seasons in Australia with North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory.
He joins a cosmopolitan Bangkok club with Portuguese head coach Henrique Calisto, Ivory Coast's Christian Kouakou and Dagno Siaka and Zesh Rehman, formerly of English Premier League club Fulham.
''Muang Thong United is a big team and play good football,'' Fowler said. ''I've played for many teams over the years and never had any problem making new friends. But what's most important for me is to help the club win every match they play.''
Another former Liverpool star Harry Kewell is ready to head in the opposite direction to Fowler and join Australia's A-League.
Kewell has been criticized in Australia over reportedly excessive financial demands and conditions, but the 32-year-old - most recently with Galatasaray in Turkey - is expected to sign for Melbourne Victory.