Oscar’s double thumbs-up in Shanghai SIPG jersey is not going to go down in the history books as one of ‘those’ sensational transfers. It certainly did not have a manager kicking a boot on to the player’s face nor did it involve an astronomical sum at the end of a bidding war.
— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) December 23, 2016
Yet, the Brazilian playmaker’s 60 million move to China could be the beginning of the end of Europe’s tag as footballer’s dream destination. With Chinese Super League announcing its intention to become one of world’s best leagues by signing some of World’s coveted talents, Europe now faces stiff competition for football stars — especially from continents such as South America and Asia.
The signs were already there. Last season, the Asian football markets saw records being shattered with the arrivals of Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune), Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) and Alex Teixeira (Jiangsu Suning). These were players who were in the peak of their career unlike a Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka who took the Asian route for one last fat pay cheque before they hang their boots up. Europe didn’t mind the Drogbas and Anelkas moving because it was helping them clear out players on the decline without upsetting the fans who don’t like it when their heroes aren’t offered contract extensions. But Jaingsu secured services of 25-year-old Teixeria by outbidding Liverpool — a team with a rich pedigree in Europe. Oscar was, until very recently, a primary target for Serie A champion Juventus. Suddenly, to people’s dismay, the Chinese were taking away Europe’s primary targets.
Shattering the football cycle
China’s financial power, aided by President Xi Jingping’s 50-point plan for football domination, in due course, will bring to end the traditional cycle of football economy. To understand how this works, lets break down the cycle into four parts. Of course, no club is completely reliant on one particular system and having a youth team is mandatory for long-term success, but we will stick to this simplistic structure to get an idea of what China can do to football.
There are 4 types of clubs:
1. The Home-grown: Clubs such as Spain’s Athletic Bilbao and England’s Southampton have always relied on identifying talent at a very young age and nurturing them to become top-class footballers. Their success lies two in factors – 1) continuous supply of young, quality footballers and 2) big clubs buying their stars for a high sum.
2. The scouts: Some clubs may not have a bright academy but they make up for it by scouting talent from across the world. They take the gamble with young players from their own league or other countries by giving them regular playing time. For the players, the clubs are guaranteed spotlights. If they perform well, the big guns will come looking. For the clubs, if the gamble pays of its a lot of profit.
3. Title chasers: The demands of a cup every single seasons means most of these clubs like to buy proven talent. They tend to buy from clubs in established leagues rather than taking a risk by signing them young.
4. The final-bow: The Major League Soccer (MLS) or the Indian Super League (ISL) are primary example of leagues where the players go to after their peaks for one last pay cheque. There is money and the football isn’t too demanding. The clubs in turn make the most out the players’ marketability through jersey and ticket sales.
What Chinese clubs have done, much to the unhappiness of Europe, is that they have entered in the ‘title-chasers’ category and not ‘final bow’. Suddenly, the home grown clubs and the scouts have alternative option to sell, which in turn will give them leverage during a negotiation. Liverpool desperately wanted Teixeira, but Shakhtar Donetsk, would not fudge until the Reds matched the Chinese bid. Moreover, the money going into these relatively smaller clubs, will allow them to fend off approaches from top clubs.
The EPL, buoyed by a new TV rights deal, is an example of how money can level the playing field. A traditional buyer such as Chelsea or Manchester City will struggle to sign a player from Southampton today because the money the Saints are getting from the deal (which is close to what top clubs from other European clubs make). This in turn prevents the top clubs’ ability to buy off competition.
If Chinese Super League continues its trend, and one would assume that will be the case, then the likes Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and Borussia Dortmund will have the financial security to say no to approaches from teams in the same league.
That said, the Chinese market also acts as an added insurance for the big clubs who are bound by the financial fair play (FFP) regulations. Take the case of Oscar. Chelsea bought the Brazilian from Internacional for his potential. Though he didn’t exactly flop, he never rose to the Neymar levels that were expected and was only a bench-warmer in Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea. In short, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off for Chelsea. That is, until CSL took him in and handed Chelsea a whopping 40 million profit.
The big clubs now have the safety of not losing money on risky moves which will push them to scout talents rather than rely on other scouting clubs. If Gabriel Jesus turns out to be a flop at Manchester City, it won’t worry the City owners too much. There is the CSL who would love to get a young player of his quality. Acquiring players from big clubs is good for China too. Oscar still has the best part of his career ahead of him and is more marketable than a player bought from Shakhtar because of Chelsea’s fan base.
This will disrupt the functioning of traditional scouting clubs who will have the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea breathing down their necks.
China is using the same method that saw its rapid rise in industrial sectors — acquiring foreign companies (clubs) and talent (in this case footballers) to improve its own. Atletico Madrid is partly owned by Chinese Billionare Wang Jianlin while Manchester City in 2015 announced a 265 million pounds deal with Chinese investors. With President Xi’s dream of turning China into a ‘soccer powerhouse’ very much a priority, rich offers from the oriental east will not be on a shortage (at least for the immediate future).
Chinese Football League promises to shake up the existing the financial system in football and throw open a plethora of opportunities (and difficulties) to clubs in Europe. Only one thing is missing in China’s top league today — the presence of a European football star.
But with the summer of 2017, this could change, with both Wayne Rooney and John Terry being eyed up. Will they open the flood-gates (and thereby change the power structure in football forever) by moving to China? Only time will tell.