Beijing: China`s football season kicks off this week with hopes of a resurgence for the beautiful game after former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson and rookie coach Fabio Cannavaro put the league among the world`s biggest spenders.
Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs spent 122.2 million euros ($165 million) during the recently closed winter transfer window, almost double last year`s figure, second only to the English Premier League (186.8 million euros) and ahead of Italy`s Serie A, according to statistics from German website transfermarkt.
Socceroo Tim Cahill, once of Everton, is the star name among the 47 foreign imports -- including many Brazilians -- who will double the number of overseas players in the competition.
An invigorated national team who reached the quarter-finals of January`s Asian Cup and top level political support are also giving fans hope the game has bounced back after years of turmoil.
Chinese President Xi Jinping -- who state media describe as an "avid" fan -- backed a "football reform plan" last week.
The policy will see future stars trained from birth, reports said, as China seeks rapid development of talent and rumours swirl it could bid to host the 2026 World Cup.
The positive atmosphere around Asia`s most watched football league stands in contrast to previous years when Chinese football was riddled with corruption and the national team regularly humiliated on the pitch.The English Premier League still dominates global football transfers, with its clubs responsible for $1.2 billion of the $4.1 billion spent world-wide in 2014, according to figures from the sport`s governing body FIFA.
Claims that expensive foreign talent has damaged prospects of the national side reached a climax after England`s dismal showing at last year`s World Cup, crashing out early after losing their opening two group games.
But pundits in China are confident its top tier will not follow a similar pattern, given that only four foreigners, including one Asian, are allowed in starting line-ups across the continent.
"I believe Chinese clubs paying top prices for top international players will be a positive thing," television commentator Yan Qiang told AFP.
"Unlike in England, China -- and all Asian leagues -- have to obey the `three plus one` policy. Therefore there will always be enough room for domestic talent in the top teams."
Much of the recent transfer activity has focused on just two clubs: current champions Guangzhou Evergrande, led by Cannavaro, and Eriksson`s Shanghai SIPG. Both coaches were appointed in November, shortly after the end of the 2014 season.
Evergrande will be seeking their fifth consecutive CSL title in 2015, but will miss the recently departed Marcello Lippi, architect of the club`s recent success, which climaxed with an AFC Champions League title in 2013.
Cannavaro, the captain of Lippi`s 2006 World Cup winning Italy side, smashed the Chinese transfer record in January with a $17 million swoop for Brazilian Ricardo Goulart. He also signed compatriot Alan for a reported $12.3m.
Goulart appears to have hit the ground running, scoring all of Guangzhou`s goals in their opening two AFC Champions League matches, a 1-0 win over FC Seoul last month and a 3-2 victory over Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia on Wednesday.
Eriksson, meanwhile, lured Argentine attacking midfielder Dario Conca back to the CSL on a deal reportedly worth $11 million a year. The former Evergrande star spent only a year at Brazilian club Fluminense before returning to the Far East.
Eriksson also signed Brazilian Davi from Guangzhou Evergrande and South Korean international Kim Ju-Young from FC Seoul.
The Swedish coach is in his second full season in China after helping Guangzhou R&F to third place last year.
R&F recorded a moral-boosting 2-0 victory at Japanese treble-winners Gamba Osaka in their AFC Champions League debut last month, but then lost to Thailand`s Buriram United 2-1 earlier this week.
Cahill, Australia`s leading goalscorer, last month joined Shanghai Shenhua, the former club of Chelsea stars Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, following a spell with New York Red Bulls.
"New York was amazing for me, but China is a growing market in football," he said following the move.
But Chen Xuyuan, president of the company that owns Eriksson`s club, warned that finance was not everything. "After all, soccer is a sport," the China Daily quoted him as saying.
"If money can solve everything, then it is no longer a sport."