This week Ezequiel Lavezzi and Nikata Jelavic joined a growing list of big name footballers that have decided to move to China. Lavezzi and Jelavic join players such as Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Gervinho, Paulinho and Demba Ba. Well known managers such as Sven Goran Eriksson and Phil Scolari have also moved to Eastern Asia to work. The Chinese have shown a clear willingness to spend vast amounts of money to attract elite talent.
It is interesting to think about elite talent flowing the other way to major Asian leagues, in this case the Chinese Super League. For many years the best Asian talent has moved to European leagues. The increasing migration roughly began at the turn of the millennium. Premier League fans will recall Arsenal signing Junichi Inamoto in 2001 and Tottenham signing Kazuyuki Toda in 2003. At the time I remember skeptics questioning whether there was economic motives behind these signings. As the years have gone on however the best Asian talent has continued to arrive on European shores with examples including Park Ji-sung, Shunsuke Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata, Lee Chun-soo and, now, Son Heung-min.
The chart below shows the number of footballers from Eastern Asian countries playing in the 'Big 5' European leagues for each season since 1992/1993. To be classified as Eastern Asian a player must be from China, Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, Republic of Korea or Taiwan. The Bundesliga (yellow bars with numbers) has witnessed the sharpest increase in the number of Eastern Asian players over the years, with twenty Eastern Asians contracted to clubs in the top German league as of last season. This is highest number of Eastern Asian players to play in the 'Big 5' in any one season.
While the destination for elite players in Europe now may be the Chinese leagues, imports from China to the 'Big 5' have been few and far between over the years. On my count, there was only twelve Chinese players to join elite European clubs from 1992 to 2015, all of whom had different levels of success. Five came to the Premier League, two came to France, one to Italy and four to Germany. A Chinese player is yet to play in La Liga. You might recognise one or two names from the list below.