Chinese football: Where is it now?

A huge investment is being made into football in China. It is reflected in FourFourTwo's Asia 50, with six Chinese Super League players making the list. So, where to from here for the sport in the world's most populated country?

It is quite striking that six of FourFourTwo's Asia 50 of 2016 are on the books of Chinese Super League clubs.

It’s a figure second only to the Bundesliga and shows the league is becoming the most important in Asia and the most important for Asian football in general.

It’s made up of three Chinese players and three from overseas. Wu Lei of Shanghai SIPG more than holds his own as an attacking force amid the increasingly formidable foreign talent that surrounds him. Zhang Linpeng and Zheng Zhi have been consistently excellent and integral to Guangzhou Evergrande's success over the years.

The contribution of the locals to Guangzhou's success at home, winning the last five domestic titles, and in Asia, boasting two of the last three continental crowns, is often overlooked.

The big-name signings have a habit of getting the headlines, then grabbing the goals and getting the headlines again.

But this happens everywhere. It's just that it has happened more quickly and visibly in China.

La Liga is generally regarded as the best in the world in terms of standards, yet its biggest stars are Argentinian, Portuguese, Uruguayan and Brazilian.

Ligue One has Zlatan and everyone knows the cosmopolitan make-up of the English Premier League.

Zhang is one of the young stars boosting the CSL

The  question is finding the right balance between the imported and the homegrown. With China and its limit on four foreign players and one from Asia, there is a decent chance of getting that right in the long-term.

There is a worry that the new wave of spending on almost exclusively creative players will stifle the opportunities and development of local lads (and the fact that all 16 goals scored in the opening round of the season all came from non-Chinese players demonstrated that there may well be something to worry about), but in the short-term it helps to make China the place to be.

The Chinese Super League is becoming a place for talented tacticians

That place is the biggest and most important league in Asia, though that does not mean it is the best. The average attendance so far this season is 30,000, a figure all-but two leagues in the world would love.

This offers a matchday experience that is hard to match in Asia and China has a real chance to establish itself as a continental hub befitting a country that historically sees itself as 'The Middle Kingdom'. It has the best players, the highest attendances and the highest international profile.

It could do with more of an Asian influence but it is already ahead of many. When it comes to Asian players, Japanese clubs tend to recruit from Korea, taking advantage of the K-League's archaic restrictions on young players' salaries to draft in talented prospects.

Chinese clubs have signed some of those after they have developed in the J-League. Kim Young-gwon, at No.10 the highest-ranked of the Chinese Super League contingent in the Asia 50, arrived in Guangzhou from Korea via Japan.

'Big Phil's' presence has added to the CSL's credibility

There have been concerns in Korea that the Chinese league wasn’t good enough for their national team players, but these are receding. Kim has developed considerably at Guangzhou, coached by the likes of Marcello Lippi, Fabio Cannavaro and Luiz Felipe Scolari, training with the likes of Dario Conca, Jackson Martinez, Paulinho and Alessandro Diamanti and facing players the calibre of Alex Teixeira, Gervinho and Asamoah Gyan on the pitch.

This is why attitudes in Australia are changing too. Tim Cahill and Trent Sainsbury also made the list. Nobody is going to pretend that this pair grew up dreaming of Chinese football and that the money on offer hasn't made a difference, but the Chinese Super League is a viable football destination.

With the spending to continue, more and more top-class stars are set to come to China

Such players are handed the chance to live in one of the world's most fascinating countries with one of its best supported leagues. The stadiums and facilities are generally excellent and there's more. The Chinese Super League is also becoming a place for talented tacticians.

At the moment, there are former Brazilian national team coaches in Mano Menezes and Scolari, former AC Milan boss Alberto Zaccheroni and Sven Goran-Eriksson.

Asian coaches have long struggled to find work overseas. Japan has a fine tradition of Brazilian bosses while the K-League goes through cycles but suffers from its current lack of diversity on its benches. West Asia has been better in this regard but the turnover tends to be so rapid in Qatar and United Arab Emirates that long-term influence is rarely felt.

In China, it may be different and the local coaches are having to learn how to deal with increasingly famous counterparts and increasingly talented opponents. And there are chances for Asians too. Hong Myung-bo was the continent's highest-rated young coach before South Korea's disastrous campaign in Brazil.

Teixeira was linked with some of Europe's biggest clubs, but chose China

Now the 2002 World Cup captain is at his first club on the west side of the Yellow Sea and last week crossed swords with Menezes, who knocked him out of the 2012 Olympics at the semi-final stage.

This time Hong's Hangzhou defeated the Brazilian's Shandong Luneng. Add an Australian and Japanese boss to the mix and the CSL really would become one for Asia to follow.

With the spending to continue, more and more top-class stars are set to come to China and this includes Asian players too. It will not be a surprise to see more than three foreigners on the top 50 list next year.

The challenge is, of course, to have more Chinese players. It is hoped that the influx will be a rising tide that lifts all boats. It may take a long time, however, until the fruits of the current investment programme in youth development can be seen, never mind savoured.

Once that happens, FourFourTwo may need to expand 50 into 100.