Shanghai, China: Lukas Podolski rejected China because of "dark channels" and one prominent football agent warned that getting transfer deals done there was muddied by shadowy figures ramping up prices.
Welcome to the murky business of the Chinese transfer window, which creaks open on June 18 for four weeks of wheeler-dealing while most people are watching the World Cup in Russia.
Transfer deals are notoriously opaque in any country, but experts said that China -- a relatively new global football frontier suffused by seemingly endless cash and ambition -- presents some unique challenges.
German former international star Podolski last year turned down Chinese clubs to join Vissel Kobe in Japan and the striker later shed a rare light on how transfer business gets done in China.
"Sure, it's tempting to hear you could earn €15m to €20m in China, but the way of negotiating -- with eight, nine agents sometimes interfering -- is close to that of criminals," Podolski, now 33, told Sport Bild.
And while the wages might be higher in the Chinese Super League (CSL) than almost anywhere else, "what goes into your account in the end will be significantly less given all the dark channels involved".
Leon Angel, chairman of Base Soccer Agency in London, said that he was "constantly receiving interest" from China in his clients, including Danny Rose, Kyle Walker and Ashley Young, all in England's World Cup squad.
Podolski's experience is familiar to Angel, who has completed "several" deals to China including for striker Demba Ba, who joined Shanghai Shenhua in 2015.
"It's no secret that in the past there has been corruption in Chinese football, but when you head into the unknown, it's daunting if you don't know who you have to deal with," said Angel, one of the few agents to reply to AFP's request for comment on the sensitive issue of transfers.
"Transfer negotiations in China are often very complicated due to the number of third-party intermediaries that somehow are involved in the possible transactions.
"It is very rare for a Chinese club to directly approach the selling club in Europe or official intermediary of the player.
"Instead, the majority of the time this is done through third parties who drive up the prices and often do not have control of the situation, leading to confusion."
- 'Vested interests' -
Chinese clubs have in the last two years made a string of eye-catching signings.
In January 2017, Brazilian attacking midfielder Oscar left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG for an Asian-record €60 million. He admitted he moved for the money.
Rivals Shenhua signed Argentine striker Carlos Tevez on wages reported at the time to be the highest in the world of €730,000 a week. He quit after one disappointing season, saying it had been "a holiday".
But it is not just big names arriving in China for overinflated wages and transfer fees.
One Belgian agent said there was widespread incredulity there when Tianjin Teda signed the winger Frank Acheampong for a reported €6.5 million from Anderlecht, where the Ghanaian was out of favour.
Xu Ting, who is certified as an agent by the Chinese Football Association (CFA), said: "The huge transfer fees do not bring players who match the price, but are the money-making tools of some vested interests."
- X-factor players -
President Xi Jinping is on a drive to improve Chinese football from grassroots to international level, but Xu warned these "vested interests" -- among them club officials in charge of transfer budgets and agents -- are holding back government ambitions.
The agent Xu alleged that some club officials buy players not because they are good but purely so they can line their own pockets, while there exist illegal "shadow contracts" that conceal from public view the true worth of the sums involved in the transfer.
Chinese clubs over-paying to bring foreigners such as Tevez in on a "holiday" was not what Beijing had in mind so the CFA last year clamped down with a 100 percent transfer tax on incoming overseas players and restricted teams to three foreigners per game.
"It's important to understand this is a market with a very different mindset," said Angel, underlining the differences between transfers in Europe and China.