Which retirement league is best for your club's 30-something star?
Capitalism has its faults. The endless chase after the almighty dollar. The catchphrase “What’s in your wallet?” functions on more than one level. Don’t get me started on automated customer service. Or human customer service. The one positive that tends to override all capitalism’s shortcomings, however, is freedom of choice. You can purchase virtually anything tailored to your personal needs, and have it delivered to your door. The world is your oyster. Literally.
Freedom of choice now exists for the ageing footballer seeking one final payday. There are currently no less than five different leagues around the world actively seeking big-name stars to raise their profile. Bayern Munich’s 34-year-old right winger Arjen Robben has been in the news for reportedly mulling a future move to Major League Soccer, Chinese Super League, or Qatar. Whether he has ruled out the ISL and Super League or simply hasn’t considered them, the flying Dutchman isn’t saying.
That's exactly the current topic of conversation at my kitchen table at the moment when talking to friends and family. Now is the time that I have to make a decision. A few years ago, it was usually relatively straightforward but I am approaching the end now and I have a lot to think about. It's not easy but it's also exciting. A lot is still open but I have already ruled out certain things in my head. But they are staying private.
First, can I say it gives me hope to learn that a footballer who makes €160,000/week still talks with family and friends over the kitchen table? Capitalism may not be society’s ruin after all.
Second, Robben is right when he says there is much to consider, especially for a player who has been with one club for an extended period. Finances are important but not the be all, end all.
Both Wayne Rooney and John Terry elected to remain in England, for instance. Rooney, who now has four children and is more provincial than cosmopolitan, elected to sign with boyhood club Everton. Terry, still defiantly waging war against Father Time at 37, chose to give as little competitive ground as possible, moving to Championship side Aston Villa.
Various other stars chose one from the five leagues mentioned. Here is what each has to offer.
Chinese Super League
The big attraction in China is obviously money. Clubs have been clawing hand over foot to offer big names obscene money to help the country develop its own players. Sometimes it works, as with Obafemi Martins. Sometimes it doesn’t, as with Carlos Tevez.
Obviously, the culture shock is huge. Language. Food. The collective mindset. Limits on freedom. Players must have the right character traits to attempt the move, regardless the funds. If they do, there is no reason it can’t be a rewarding experience. Ricardo Goulart has made a career there.
Indian Super League
The ISL lives in the CSL’s shadow in many ways. There are fewer restrictions on personal freedom but that only means clubs are more independent. They are less concerned with serving the national program, which is the prime reason for the Chinese league’s existence.
As well, there is less money on offer. There are big names. Dimitar Berbatov is bossing the league at the moment. Florent Malouda and Robbie Keane are also in residence. Yet, clubs are budget conscious in a nation where sport is dominated by cricket. One or two recruit from the Football League’s lower tiers. Still, if you’re a decent footballer not ready to hang up your boots and up for an exotic experience, the ISL may be for you.
We’re not talking Arsenal’s stadium, although Pierre-Emerick Aubamaeyang seems to think it’s the place to end his career. Rather we’re talking the Qatar Stars League, in which Xavi, Wesley Sneijder, and Vladimir Weiss are all waiting for the sun to set.
There are certain advantages to playing in Qatar. As always, money tops the list. The competition is always looking for foreign ambassadors who will help smooth over the rough patches in its World Cup project. Travel is much less demanding, however, as the country is a peninsula in the Persian Gulf with one major city, Doha, and a handful of desert towns. Alcohol must be obtained with a special permit, then consumed only at home or in licensed restaurants and bars. Public drunkenness is a serious offence, which may be more off-putting to some footballers than political censorship.
Foreign recruitment is on a slightly lower level in the UAE Arab Gulf League, even though the UAE has three larger cities: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Al Ain, and drinking is slightly less taboo. The ISL to Qatar’s CSL, its best known UEFA stars might be Hungary’s Balazs Dzsudzsak and Anthony Caceres, the 25-year-old Aussie who couldn’t cut it at Manchester City.
If you’re a single, heterosexual footballer, either competition could be for you. If your wife enjoys staying in the house, wearing scarves, and not having to drive, they might work for you too.
Major League Soccer
MLS is a limited market for retiring footballers. There are only three lucrative places on each club for players looking to cash in. Many of those spots are now going to younger, cheaper footballers with far more upside to their game. On the other hand, the league is adding teams like my waistline is adding inches.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is rumoured to be house-hunting in Los Angeles while he recovers from his latest injury. It’s pure speculation, but given Manchester United teammate Marouane Fellaini was photographed allegedly doing much the same in Istanbul over the Christmas holiday and is now said to have one foot out the Old Trafford door, there is an element of credibility.
Players past being any help, such as Steven Gerrard, Kaka, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo have put the kibosh on a cushy situation for others. On the other hand, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Villa have been sufficiently influential with Chicago Fire NYCFC respectively for MLS Cup champion Toronto FC to take a flyer on 30-year-old Dutch right-back Gregory van der Wiel.
With the US on the outside looking in for the World Cup, and little in the way of youth development in place, there is further impetus to bring in quality players to a) maintain interest in the league and b) raise its quality by exposing young American professionals to experienced opponents and mentors.
Turkey, you say? How could a country run by an authoritarian, nationalist despot intent on criminalising any opposition to his rule stage a monied, competitive competition open to foreign players? You did just read the section on MLS, didn’t you?
Whether or not you think Recep Erdogan is better or worse than Donald Trump, and thankfully for yours truly it remains the latter, Turkish football is exploding onto the European radar. The league signed a lucrative broadcasting contract with beIn Sport and, at a time when both the CSL and ISL are increasing limits on foreign players, has eliminated its own.
The bigger clubs are going all-in on foreign talent. Nor are they focusing solely on European stars. African stars Arouna Kone and Emmanuel Adebayor, Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera, Chile’s Gary Medel, Brazilians Vagner Love and Talisca are playing alongside stars with names like Pepe, Babel, and Pogba. Okay Florentin Pogba, not Paul. Sorry, couldn’t resist. The point is that everyone is welcome and treated equally. Even prodigal sons like Arda Turan.
Like MLS, unproductive older stars are being [cough] grandfathered out. Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong, and Jeremy Menez have all moved on. But Samuel Eto’o is hanging on. Stephen Sessegnon and Demba Ba have arrived. So has Robinho, apparently to finance the appeal of his rape conviction in Italy.
Football can be equal parts beautiful and ugly. That said, there should always be places for its ageing stars to fade into the night sky.