The Chinese Super League is hardly one a casual football fan would have heard of before January.
But the Far East is trying hard to become a footballing superpower, and are prepared to use some serious cash to achieve it.
Having already smashed their own transfer record four times last month by signing Elkeson (to Shanghai SIPG – £13.9m), Ramires (to Jiangsu Suning – £21m), Jackson Martinez (to Guangzhou Evergrande – £32.7m) and Alex Teixeira (Jiangsu Suning – £39m), the mega-rich league is showing no signs of slowing down.
They’ve even made an ambitious £38m approach for West Ham midfielder Dimitri Payet today.
But where is all this money coming from?
Well basically, it’s coming from the very top.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, is a huge football fan and wants his nation’s league to become one of the best in the world.
Their footballing identity has never really taken off, despite the country’s huge population of 1.4 billion.
The national side is ranked 93rd in the world by FIFA – admittedly, not the most accurate of ranking systems, and China have never produced a player who could be genuinely considered world class (not even Manchester United’s legendary striker, Dong Fangzhuo).
Jinping – in office since 2013 – sees splashing the cash as the way to launch China into a position as a global powerhouse and has encouraged the country’s top businessmen to get involved with football teams, providing them with huge war chests with which to capture some of Europe’s top players.
Despite making headlines in 2016 with their spending, China have been throwing cash around for a few years now.
Brazilian midfielder Dario Conca joined Guangzhou Evergrande in 2011 for a then record £8.4m and was made the world’s third-best paid player, pulling in £170,000-a-week, a salary that was only behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Evergrande are arguably the biggest movers and shakers in China.
Managed by Luiz Felipe Scolari (yep Chelsea fans, he managed to get a well paid post after the debacle he made of your top job), they are the holders of the Chinese Super League and AFC Champions League.
Their squad boasts the likes of Paulinho, Martinez, Alan Carvalho and one-time Charlton Athletic and Celtic midfielder, Zheng Zhi – who is also Guangzhou captain.
But thanks to this new investment, there are a number of teams hot on the heels of Evergrande.
Hebei China Fortune have only recently achieved promotion to the Super League having been formed in 2010 but are already attracting star players, including Gervinho and former Chelsea serial loanee, Gael Kakuta.
Former Everton midfielder Li Tie is in charge, which makes them instantly lovable.
Jiangsu Suning are also growing rapidly, having acquired Ramires from Chelsea and stolen Alex Teixeira away from Liverpool. They also have one-time Manchester City flop Jô, whose scoring record has improved since leaving England – we promise.
Asamoah Gyan, Stephane Mbia, Fredy Guarin, Momo Sissoko, Tim Cahill and Demba Ba are also scattered across the league, having swapped higher profile teams to join the Chinese revolution – and boost their bank balances.
This isn’t the first time an unheard of league has tried to use cash to buy recognition.
The MLS is a popular choice for ageing players to wind down their careers and it’s growing steadily with the additions of new franchises like Orlando City and New York City FC.
However, the key difference between the States and China seems to be the age of the players that are swapping European teams for the Far East.
The MLS is almost an exclusive land for the thirty-something footballer, while China has made a point of going after players in their prime, such as Teixeira, Ramires and Jackson.
Having said that, big name veterans are also being targeted.
Dani Alves and Wesley Sneijder have been approached, while Wayne Rooney could make himself the world’s highest paid player should a move to Shanghai SIPG eventually materialise.
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side are reportedly interested in offering the England skipper £25m a season to be their new poster boy.
Much like their population, China’s football scene is showing no signs of slowing, but there is one saving grace for European clubs to hang on to.
The Super League has a foreign player quota.
Only five foreigners are allowed to sign for one club at any time and only four of them are allowed on the pitch simultaneously.
This rule means that every team has to rely on home-grown players as well as their foreign stars, so clubs can’t neglect local talent in favour of big earners.
One of those four foreigners has to be a player from an Asian Football Confederation country – if the club has one in its ranks, meaning there are a few Japanese and Korean players in the Super League.
That means a maximum of 80 of the world’s top players can be lured to China, which is more than enough to make football’s latest big hitters a force to be reckoned with.
Should the revolution stand the test of time and establish itself as a decent alternative to European football, calls for a worldwide club competition could gain interest.
We could even see a revamp of the Champions League, where the likes of Manchester City and Real Madrid go up against Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai Shenhua.
Logistically, that could be an absolute nightmare but as the Chinese Super League has proved, money talks and we could be close to seeing who really is the best team in the world.