Asia 50, 2017: China rules supreme – but for how long?
It's official. The Chinese Super League is currently the go-to-place for Asian stars, with six of FourFourTwo's Asia 50 for 2017 playing for clubs in China, drawing level with last year’s leading competition, the Bundesliga.
This just-assumed mantle may, however, be as much of a one-off as Leicester City's English Premier League success.
The China influx was partly due to the Asian quota that was introduced in most AFC nations late in the previous decade
But first, the background.
Those moves and the size of the fees involved made headlines around the world.
At the same time, more and more of Asia’s top stars have been flocking there too.
The China influx was partly due to the Asian quota that was introduced in most Asian Football Confederation (AFC) nations late in the previous decade.
In China, teams were allowed to sign five foreign players and one of these had to be a fellow AFC member.
At first, this simply meant an increase in the number of South Koreans, the nationality that travels more than most in Asia.
The Chinese Super League was not just becoming an alternative to the big leagues of Europe, it was becoming an option for Asian players too
Kim Young-gwon is the poster boy for this rule. The South Korean has never played club football at home, joining FC Tokyo as a teenager in 2010. Two years later he was off to Guangzhou Evergrande for a fee of $2.5 million (S$3.48 million), the first signing by new coach Marcello Lippi.
The central defender has won five Chinese Super League titles, one for every season he has been at Tianhe Stadium. He has also won two Asian Champions Leagues, under the Italian in 2013 and then Luiz Felipe Scolari two years later.
There are few Asian players anywhere with such a CV. Yet without that rule in place, it is unlikely the wealthy Chinese clubs would have signed Kim, choosing instead a more glamorous South American.
Other AFC stars followed. The biggest name was Tim Cahill, the former Everton star arriving in Shanghai Shenhua in 2015.
After a slow start, the Australian became a firm favourite among the club's passionate fans. He scored goals and led the team to the final of the FA Cup. He was then surprisingly, and suddenly, let go at the start of the 2016 campaign.
Whether the Asian quota meant Chinese teams were paying Koreans and Australians too much money to fill positions that could be filled, at least to a reasonable extent, by local players is not the point.
The Chinese Super League was not just becoming an alternative to the big leagues of Europe for world famous stars, it was becoming an option for Asian players too.
FFT'S ASIA 50, 2017
Korean international Hong Jeong-ho left FC Augsburg in Germany to join Jiangsu Suning, while Socceroo Robbie Kruse also headed east from the Bundesliga, this time to Liaoning.
Just as the Australians followed the Koreans, the Uzbeks followed the Australians. Anzur Ismailov, Igor Sergeev and Egor Krimets have all appeared and then Odil Ahmedov joined Shanghai SIPG ahead of the new season.
There is Syrian star Ahmad Al Salih as well as Javier Patino of the Philippines too.
China was becoming the place to be. The money is good, the teams are improving and there is a certain buzz around the league that is hard to find elsewhere in Asia.
At that rate, FourFourTwo would have expected the number of Chinese Super Leaguers on the 2018 Asia 50 to continue growing.
That is, until a chopstick was jammed in the works.
Just weeks ahead of the 2017 season, the Chinese Football Association changed the foreign player rules and abolished the Asian quota. It was shortly reintroduced, but one aspect of the new rule remained.
Clubs can still sign five foreign players, with one spot still reserved for Asia, but the crucial difference is that they can now only name three overseas stars in their match-day squads.
Crucially, there is no special dispensation for Asian players, so any three of the five on the books can be named.
This has major consequences. Look at Ahmedov. He has been impressive in the Asian Champions League, where the old rule still applies, but has played just four out of seven league games.
This is simply because when you have paid around $150 million for the likes of Hulk, Oscar and Elkeson then, when fit and reasonably fresh, those three are going to get the nod from Andre Villas-Boas.
Ahmedov is doing better than most. Korean internationals Kim Kee-hee and Jang Hyun-soo, stalwarts last season for Shanghai Shenhua and Guangzhou R&F, have not played a single minute this.
Jang is likely to move soon, probably to the Middle East or back to Japan.
“I have to leave the Chinese Super League for the sake of my place in the national team,” he said recently.
Tianjin Quanjian signed Kwon Kyong-won for $11 million in January only for the midfielder to play one of the first seven games, the same as Kim Ju-young at Hebei and one more than Krimets at Beijing.
If the rule stays then most AFC players will leave for pastures new, as will China's newfound place as the continent's go-to-league.