When a player leaves one of Europe’s big leagues, they are often accused of prioritising the riches on offer in a far inferior league, such as the Chinese Super League, over career interests and glory.
To an extent that criticism holds weight.
Oscar, who made the move to Shanghai SIPG three years ago for £52 million, was only 25 after all and despite featuring sparingly for Chelsea in the first half of their title-winning season, was regarded highly enough that he would have had no shortage of potential suitors from major clubs across Europe.
He could even have dug in and attempted to force his way into Antonio Conte’s relentless (at the time) winning machine in west London.
But while some have cast such decisions as ‘career killers’, a number of players in recent years have made the move from Europe, or elsewhere, to China and for a variety of reasons enjoyed a career renaissance.
Here are seven such players who proved that moving to the Far East was the right call.
1. Renato Augusto
To: Beijing Guoan
After an inconsistent and largely unfulfilled four-and-a-half-year spell with Bayer Leverkusen, former Flamengo midfielder Renato Augusto returned to Brazil in 2012 to sign for Corinthians.
And there he remained until January 2016, when he made the move to the Chinese capital Beijing.
This proved an inspired decision. Augusto accumulated 12 international caps for Brazil that year — compared to five in the previous three — and was named as an overage player as the Selecao won Olympic Gold.
He even has a World Cup goal on his CV, having made Tite’s 2018 World Cup squad. Unfortunately, it was but a consolation as Belgium knocked Brazil out at the quarter-final stage.
From: Tottenham Hotspur
To: Guangzhou Evergrande
Of all the entries on this list, you’ll be most familiar with this one’s story.
Paulinho was regarded as a major coup for Tottenham when he signed from Corinthians for £17m in 2013 after he had lifted the Copa Libertadores with his club and the Confederations Cup with his country, in the months prior to the move.
However, in two seasons at White Hart Lane, Paulinho’s reputation nosedived to the extent that he lost his previously secure place in Brazil’s starting XI and started only three Premier League matches in his final year in English football.
A move away was regarded as the best outcome for all parties and Paulinho has rediscovered the form that made him so highly rated in the first place. Like Augusto, Paulinho became a regular presence in Brazil’s engine room and earned a season at Barcelona, where he scored nine times from midfield, winning La Liga and the Spanish Cup, before returning to Guangzhou Evergrande.
3. Odion Ighalo
To: Changchun Yatai
Odion Ighalo was one of the breakout stars of the 2015/16 Premier League campaign after he had struck 14 goals in his first 23 league matches. Speculation began to surface linking the Nigerian with a money-spinning move to Manchester United amongst others.
However, an utterly disastrous calendar year in 2016 which saw Ighalo net only twice in his last 32 Premier League appearances meant that the European suitors for his signature dried up considerably.
Having lost his place in the Watford side, Ighalo grabbed his chance to move to China in January 2017 in an attempt to save his career, and netted 46 goals in just 74 games. His performances earned him a surprise move on loan to Manchester United in January 2020, where he has scored in each of his three starts.
4. Eran Zahavi
From: Maccabi Tel-Aviv
To: Guangzhou R&F
Eran Zahavi is the most successful Israeli footballer of his generation yet a desperately disappointing 18-month spell in Serie A with Palermo had tarnished his reputation in Europe’s big leagues.
An incredible goal record for Maccabi Tel-Aviv (113 goals in 148 matches from attacking midfield) upon leaving Sicily failed to result in another big club in Europe taking a punt on him, paving the way for a move to China.
Following his switch to the Chinese Super League in 2016, Zahavi has become one of the league’s best performers scoring an incredible 99 goals in 110 games for Guangzhou R&F, including 29 in the 2019 campaign — finishing as top scorer.
5. Stephane Mbia
To: Hebei China Fortune
A dismal spell at QPR that threw Stephane Mbia’s commitment and professionalism into question led to a move to Sevilla in Spain where it’s fair to say he fared much better, helping the club win the Europa League.
Shortly after that success, though, the Cameroon international opted to join Turkish side Trabzonspor in a move that ultimately proved to be disastrous.
With the prospect of moving to another club in one of Europe’s big five leagues remote, Mbia made the switch to China and due to the fact he is virtually the only big-name defender in the division, he was held in extremely high regard. Mbia even earned himself a move back to Europe with Toulouse, although things didn’t quite work out, with the 33-year-old returning to the safety of China with Wuhan Zall and, now, Shanghai Shenhua.
6. Dario Conca
To: Guangzhou Evergrande
A supremely gifted Argentine playmaker who made his name in Brazil with Fluminense, Dario Conca hit the headlines when he became one of the world’s best-paid players following his move to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2011.
Conca was 28 at the time of his transfer and, despite his continued brilliance in South American football, had never had a look in for the Argentine national side.
With the prospects of breaking into La Albisceleste’s side looking increasingly slim, Conca instead became the trailblazer for South American footballers in Asia, as well as leading Evergrande to a multitude of titles.
His performances in China earned Conca a move to the ambitious US start-up club, Austin Bold, before his retirement in 2019.
7. Papiss Cisse
From: Newcastle United
To: Shandong Luneng
Papiss Cisse made a truly breathtaking start to his career at Newcastle after joining from Bundesliga side Freiburg, netting 13 goals in his first 14 Premier League matches, including that outrageous volley against Chelsea. However, over the next four seasons, he managed only 24 more league goals.
Due to his erratic form and the fact that he is now 32, Cisse would not have been inundated with offers to return to the Premier League following Newcastle’s relegation but he was snapped up by Shandong Luneng instead to partner Graziano Pelle.
The Senegalese striker netted 18 goals in 34 games to justify Shandong’s faith in him and earned himself a move back to Europe with Turkish Super Lig club Alanyaspor in 2018, scoring 33 goals in 55 outings so far.