With commentators such as Jamie Carragher bemoaning the transfer of stars like Oscar to the Chinese Super League, David Kennedy says that, with the way football is evolving, we are going to have to get used to such moves.
It’s July 2014: the spiritual home of football is awash with fervour as Brazil secure their place in the World Cup semi-final on home soil by defeating Colombia 2-1. The seleção, featuring Paulinho, Oscar, Hulk, Hernanes and Ramires, are made to fight, but eventually overcome their South American rivals to set up a clash with Germany in Belo Horizonte.
The conclusion to this story is well-known. The swashbuckling Germans dismantled the hosts 7-1, condemning Brazil to the most famous collapse in the competition’s history. It marked a dark day in the history of Brazilian football, one that many would argue they are yet to recover from, despite winning the gold medal at last summer’s Olympics. Meanwhile, what ever became of the aforementioned quintet? Two and a half years on, all five now ply their trade in the Chinese Super League, along with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Axel Witsel, Jackson Martinez and Gervinho.
It’s fascinating to observe that such a sizeable proportion of those present at the scene of Brazil’s nadir are now based in football’s latest hotbed. In 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping unveiled a 50-point plan that aims to make China future World Cup hosts and winners. It’s an ambitious proposal, but one that has not lacked commitment, with a planned investment of $850 billion over the course of the next decade. As well as investing in their own footballing infrastructure, Super League clubs have heavily outlaid on big-name foreign players, while superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa have reportedly rejected mouth-watering financial packages from unnamed Chinese teams in recent months. It’s not just on the pitch either – managers like José Mourinho and even the Premier League’s top referee, Mark Clattenburg, have supposedly turned down big-money deals.
There are parallels to be drawn with the growth of China’s industry, where recruiting foreign expertise to upskill local workers has been commonplace. Domestic player quotas are in place to enforce the use of Chinese players in an attempt to improve Marcelo Lippi’s national team.
Even in the modern football world, with mega television rights packages and astronomical Premier League salaries, transfer fees such as the £60m Chelsea received from Shanghai SIPG for Oscar caused uproar amongst fans and media personalities. In his weekly Daily Mail column, Jamie Carragher slammed the 25-year old, who became the world’s third-best paid player, writing, “It is embarrassing that a player would give up his career and the chance to compete for the biggest prizes in the game just for money”.
On the other hand, Watford striker Troy Deeney saw his former strike partner Odion Ighalo move to Changchun Yatai for £20m on transfer deadline day and came out in favour of the decision, saying, “Anyone who does it won’t be getting any hard feelings from me – fair play to them”.
The matter has clearly divided opinion. It’s unquestionable that moving from a major European league to the Super League is a huge step down in quality. A recent rule changes means that any given starting eleven is likely to feature three overseas players, with a further two permitted as substitutes, resulting in a large discrepancy in footballing talent even within teams. Despite the influx of international superstars, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande are very much the dominant force in the league, having won the title six years in a row. While average attendances as Super League games have steadily risen since Guangzhou’s first title in 2011, China’s Asian Football Confederation Member Association Ranking remains at 7 (of 13 nations), making it the equivalent of Russia, who rank 7th in UEFA’s member coefficient table. At this point in time, moving to China is motivated by one thing and one thing only: the absurdly high wages packets.
While it’s fair to criticise players for opting for money over a higher standard of football, it seems a little hypocritical for fans to castigate Oscar et al and simultaneously bemoan their favourite club’s reluctance to shell out £35m and a £150k per week contract for a new centre forward in the January transfer window. The reality is that the emergence of China as a viable career option for players is merely an extension of the modern footballing world, a bizarrely cash-flush haven that has quickly snowballed since the inception of the Premier League in 1992. Indeed, some recent Premier League transfers have been baffling – in 2015, Georginio Wijnaldum captained PSV Eindhoven to the Eredivise title before turning down the chance to play Champions League football to join Steve McClaren at Newcastle. Wijnaldum went on to be relegated with the Toon as his former employers became champions again and reached the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Football in 2017 is inextricably connected to money. While this is the case, the Chinese Super League will continue to dominate headlines.