Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande smashed China’s transfer fee record Wednesday when they announced a deal to secure Atletico Madrid’s unsettled Colombian striker Jackson Martinez for 42 million euros ($46 million).
Martinez, 29, is the latest Europe-based player to move to the cashed-up Chinese Super League and was described as a “goal poacher” and “fox in the box” in a Chinese-language statement on the club’s website.
“The moment has arrived to start a new stage in my career,” Martinez told Atletico’s website.
“The club and I have spoken in the last few days and we are agreed this is the best thing for everyone.”
The purchase broke the week-old Chinese record fee of 28 million euros, paid by Jiangsu Suning to acquire Brazilian midfielder Ramires from Chelsea.
It lifted the Chinese Super League’s total spending during the current transfer window to 203.9 million euros, according to website transfermarkt which tracks commercial dealings in the sport — second only to the English Premier League.
Atletico bought Martinez last year for 35 million euros from FC Porto where he had scored an impressive 92 goals in 133 games. But he struggled to establish himself in Spain, scoring just two goals in 15 La Liga appearances.
Chinese businesses have invested huge sums in football since President Xi Jinping, an avowed fan of the sport, declared that hosting, qualifying, and winning a World Cup were national goals.
In the past the highest-profile international signings by Chinese clubs tended to be aging stars in their 30s nearing the end of their playing days.
But many of those bought in the current transfer window have been in their late 20s.
Questions have been asked about whether some are past their prime. But David Hornby, sports business director of the Mailman brand management group in Shanghai, said: “These are not guys at the end of their career just looking for a payout.”
– ‘Chess game’ –
In 2015 a powerful political committee headed by Xi released a 50-point plan to achieve his goal, including establishing tens of thousands of soccer schools and making the game compulsory for some elementary and middle-school students.
Investors have since plowed more money into football in “an attempt to be looked favorably on by the government”, said Tom Elsden, sports strategy manager at Mailman.
“This has stimulated the growth of football immensely. It’s really that government mandate that’s pushing it.”
Factoring in the top two levels of the sport, Chinese clubs have so far spent 252.7 million euros in the current transfer period — which runs until February 26 in China — while English clubs splashed out 295.1 million euros before the European window closed on Monday, according to transfermarkt.
The second-tier China League One ranked ahead of the Bundesliga in Germany, Spain’s Primera Division and France’s Ligue 1 for spending.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media service, many criticized the high cost of signing Martinez but the most popular comments were from fans who defended Evergrande’s move.
“Seeing some people saying it’s not worth it, I think it’s overdone,” wrote one user. “I wonder if you guys watch football at all? You’re all displeased with Martinez? China football fans’ demands are really high now!”
Another wrote that China’s billionaires were “playing a big game of chess” with their football investments.
The Guangzhou club, majority-owned by property developer Evergrande and internet giant Alibaba, sold Brazilian striker Elkeson to domestic rivals Shanghai SIPG last month.
But Martinez will join Brazilian international Paulinho in a squad which won a fifth consecutive domestic crown in October.
The following month they claimed their second AFC Champions League title in three years.
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