China joins England as biggest annual transfer spenders

This post is a collaboration between Scoreboard Journalism and Show Legend. The data is sourced from

The Chinese Super League begins this weekend and, as we showed here, Chinese clubs have become a major force on the international transfer market this winter with a net transfer spend of €322 million. Comparing countries across full seasons rather than a single transfer window, China has now become the second biggest net spending nation on football players, behind England which has dominated international transfers for the last decade.

The current structure of the Chinese football leagues, which comprise the Super League, League One and League Two, was set up in 2004 but transfer fee data is only available from 2009. That season, China had a net spend of just over €5 million, far behind the €276 million which left England during their season. Italy and Germany were also major net spenders in 2008/2009.

The English Premier League, has dominated international transfer spending over the last decade recording the highest net spend of any country in nine of the last 11 seasons. The only time in this period that more money came into the country than left it was the 2009/2010 season when Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for a world record fee, and Xabi Alonso left Liverpool to also join Real Madrid. Unsurprisingly Spain led the net spend standings that season but Spanish clubs have been nowhere near that level of spending since.

Since 2009/2010, net transfer spending by English clubs has continue to increase and reached a record €706 million this season. Russia was the only other country to spend over €200 million more on international transfers than they have received in the last five seasons but they have not been such a player since 2013.


Click on the chart for the full interactive version

With China’s net spend hitting more €322 million during their pre-season transfer window this year, it has become the first country outside England to break the €300 million net spend barrier on players from outside its own leagues. China’s summer window will open for a month in June and July which could produce an even greater net spend for the country this season.

The Chinese Super League accounts for the vast majority of this net spend of course but League One has a net spend this season of nearly €36 million or around 12% of China’s total. This is in stark contrast to England in which the Championship and other leagues always earn more from international transfers than they spend and therefore depress the country’s overall figures. China’s financial strength in football is thus unique in not being only restricted to its top league.

All of this is playing out despite the Chinese leagues putting restrictions on the number of foreign players which can be included in a club’s squad. Currently clubs are allowed only five players in their squads, a maximum of four from outside Asia and one from other nations within the AFC. Brazilians are popular with 11 of the 16 Super League clubs including at least one Brazilian in this season’s squad. Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu Suning have the most Brazilian players (3 each) in their squads for 2016.

Chinese clubs are allowed to field a maximum of four of their five foreign players in a match. In England, there are no such restrictions and some clubs, notably Arsenal, have selected whole teams without a single Englishman in Premier League matches. If the restriction in China becomes more liberal or is even scrapped, China will probably become an even bigger challenge to Europe’s biggest leagues in the international transfer market.

Given the wealth of the owners of Chinese clubs and the wishes of the country’s leaders to develop a major soccer league in the country, there is every reason to believe that the attraction of the league to top international players could rival England’s and other European leagues in the future. Chinese clubs are already making bids for the likes of Chelsea’s Oscar and Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, both of whom are still under 25 and not yet at the peak of their careers. The Chinese clubs clearly have the financial muscle to buy those players now but the attraction of the league is not yet big enough for players of this calibre to leave Europe. If the Chinese Super League can solve this issue, Europe’s biggest leagues would have another major competitor for the best players in the world.

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