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Will insane money talk for the Chinese Super League, or will top players continue to walk?

Thursday 5th January 2017
After sitting on the bench for Antonio Conte's Chelsea, Oscar had to be feeling pretty good about himself when Chinese Super League club Shanghai SIPG's £60 million bid for him was accepted by the Blues shortly before this winter transfer window opened. He became wanted again, and in a big way. Unfortunately, if Borussia Dortmund accepts his new club's £150 million bid for Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang, or the Gabonese decides that he is able to force through a move, despite being under contract with the North Rhine-Westfalia side through 2020, the Brazilian will again be playing second fiddle. In this case, at least, he will still be playing.

Rumours aplenty are linking many stars to China. One unnamed club was said to have offered Real Madrid €300 million for Cristiano Ronaldo. Carlos Bacca's name has also been mentioned. Some have turned down the super-inflated offers, valuing Champions League football, continued participation for their national team and staying close to their families in a familiar, not to mention more liberated culture. Others, like Oscar, have been seduced. Carlos Tevez left Boca Juniors to claim his mountain of Chinese yuan, though, to be fair he has long been missing from Europe and the Albiceleste picture. Hulk, Graziano Pellè, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé, Jackson Martinez, and Obafemi Martins are all playing in China, earning tens of millions annually in whichever currency you (or they) prefer.

Asamoah Gyan, who would have been on the list above had this been written last season, famously left the Premier League in 2012, signing with UAE outfit Al Ain. He was sold to Shanghai SIPG in 2015, then loaned back to Al Ain a year later. Rumours linking him to Reading before his return to the Emirates were quashed after manager Jaap Stam confirmed he had failed a rigorous medical. Gyan's spotty injury history and his lack of games in China had raised red flags for the Royals. That his stay in the Middle Kingdom was cut short also indicates Chinese clubs may be willing to overpay, but expect value for their money.
It should be noted, like Gyan, the majority of star players in or still close to their prime who move to China from Europe (via the US in Martins' case) include only two well-known Europeans: Pellè and Axel Witsel, the latter having just signed with Tianjian Quanjian from Zenit Saint Petersburg. African and South American players, foreigners in both Europe and China, are less culturally attached. They tend, therefore, to be more concerned about finances than fitting in. That isn't to say two signings can't become three, then four, or more. Nonetheless, the trend isn't likely to suddenly gather momentum. The biggest European clubs can come close to matching Chinese wages and offer other benefits to compensate any shortfalls in order to keep their best European players. Said benefits include the comforts of home and Champions League play, but, more importantly, the greater global exposure from the latter yielding commensurate endorsement opportunities. It is smaller clubs that cannot offer the same celebrity which will struggle to retain their stars, as Southampton discovered with Pellè.

It's obvious, then, what individual players have to gain by moving to China. The more intriguing question is what's in it for the Chinese? After nearly two-and-a-half millennia as an extremely insular nation, China has elected to dive into the global economy with both feet, studs raised. They have invested in several third-world nations, ostensibly in their pursuit of natural resources. Signing Cristiano Ronaldo isn't going to give China an inside track on Iberian minerals, however. Nor will landing Aubameyang do the same with regards to Gabon. So, is it simply a massive public relations campaign? Merely another step in their desire to become a greater global player? Or have the Chinese concluded there is no time like the present to achieve the Great Unity? Bringing about world peace by signing the best footballers on the planet sounds absurd, yes, but it's a better, more humane method than carpet bombing innocent civilian populations to uproot a comparative handful of terrorists. So, while the Chinese aren't exactly models of humanitarianism, I guess I'm not complaining.
Will the Chinese Super League be able to buy its way to level footing with top European leagues, then beyond, as Simon Kuper recently predicted? In the short term, which is the route China is attempting, I don't think so. While players from Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Asia, are outsiders in European culture, therefore placing a higher priority on wages, they also, almost to a man, wish to be the best. That means playing against the best. The Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, plus, to a slightly lesser degree, Serie A and Ligue 1, are where they can do that. Nowhere else. UEFA's dominance at the Club World Cup is proof if you really needed it. Until non-European clubs begin regularly winning that competition, Europe will continue to sit atop football's food chain.

Moreover, China's vision for a utopian global society places them first among equals. In other words, it's a planetary version of their One China policy. Signing elite foreign players has been done with a view towards promoting China by making Chinese football the world's best. Which is why each Super League club is limited to signing four foreign players. As well as exhibiting their skills for the Chinese public, the hired guns are expected to improve the quality of their homegrown teammates. Essentially, this is the same approach taken in the United States by the original North American Soccer League, then Major League Soccer.

The original NASL was not too concerned with developing the American game. Rather, it was a purely commercial venture to bring an American brand to the fore in a previously untapped market. Its clubs madly splashed the cash on as many foreign players as each could afford, then hoped the Americans who filled out the starting XI wouldn't trip over the ball. In the end, the NASL was unable to wrestle a significant share of public interest away from the myriad of other major competitions, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, NCAA Division I college gridiron football and basketball, pro tennis, golf, and both Indy and stock car racing, causing the overly ambitious league to fold. China's sporting culture is not as ingrained as America's, with basketball, table tennis, and billiards/snooker being football's primary competitors. The government has therefore been better able to mandate football's importance to the nation on its citizens. Still, while profit may be a secondary concern early in the project, it remains to be seen whether mounting losses force a rethink before positive results are achieved.
Unlike the NASL or the Chinese Super League, MLS's highest priority is maintaining profitability. Commissioner Don Garber repeatedly emphasizes his league's goal for becoming competitive with the top European competitions. However, it is a long-term goal. Very long term. Similar to the CSL, MLS makes a distinction for as many as three players on each club's roster. Only, rather than nationality, its exception is for wages which exceed the otherwise hard salary cap. Star players are recruited at an unpenalized cost to raise both the league's quality and profile.

MLS is uninterested in permitting more so-called Designated Player slots for each club, instead focusing on expanding the number of clubs themselves. Its goal is to play in as many North American markets as the NHL, NBA and MLB, which, at the moment, is thirty. MLS cost control measures, as well as promotion/relegation's absence, make revenue more predictable, allowing existing owners to charge hefty franchise fees to newcomers who understand that, as with real estate, even if they suffer small losses for several seasons, the club's value will still have appreciated more than sufficiently to deliver a profit when they decide to sell. Happily, an expanded league with limited positions open to elite foreign players also provides an opportunity for American (and Canadian) talent to develop. Conversely, the sixteen-team CSL promotes and relegates two clubs annually, which in a different manner, offers more Chinese players the opportunity to play at a higher level. Whether new clubs coming into the league will ultimately expose homegrown players to higher competition in equal numbers to an outsized, static league will only be revealed in the future. For now, call it a draw.

What isn't all square, at the moment, are the two country's respective FIFA World Rankings. The US is ranked twenty-eighth, reflecting their disappointing start to CONCACAF qualifying which led to Jürgen Klinsmann's sacking. That said, American players are much better on average than their Chinese counterparts, as evidenced by the PRC's eighty-second placed ranking. Because American players are more capable, it can be argued the stars who come into MLS as Designated Players have more to work with than the stars who elect to go to China when it comes to making their teammates better.
Yet, the trend in MLS has been to move away from high-priced names such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, and Kaká, towards lesser players still in their prime, like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Nicolás Lodeiro. The latter group, closer in ability to their homegrown colleagues, have delivered better results in terms of winning the league. To a degree, the issue is one of age and fitness, even though certain greybeards consistently contributed on the pitch, Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane springing first to mind.

Beyond having enough fuel remaining in the tank, there is also the matter of team chemistry. There has to be a common ground between teammates, especially when a small handful has so many zeroes at the end of their paychecks.

Even without adding age and status into the mix, purely in terms of language and culture, there is a greater gap to overcome in China than anywhere else. American baseball professionals signing in Japan provide perhaps the closest comparison. There were several major league stars who attempted to extend their careers by going to the Land of the Rising Sun. All failed, often without lasting a full season. The American players who did succeed tended to be lesser talents who couldn't make it in the majors, or who spent most of their careers warming the bench. Elite players rely on their superior abilities more than they do their teammates. Meanwhile, discounted talents who have failed to reach such status or been disrespected, like Giovinco for his diminutive stature, may be more open to forming alliances rather than just showing up to collect a wage packet.

The challenge to build a lasting football career in China is daunting. The only European still with a Chinese club who signed prior to 2015 is Croatian Darko Matić, who(?) has been with three different clubs since 2007. Likewise, there is one African, Zambian James Kamanga, one Australian, Ryan McGowan, and five Brazilians whose names you probably wouldn't recognise either. Among the familiar names who took on the challenge, Seleção stars Jô, Robinho, Kléber, and Vagner Love lasted one season, as did Drogba, Gyan, Alessandro Diamanti, Eidur Gudjohnsen, and Nicolas Anelka. The evidence is plain to see. As a method for raising the Chinese game to UEFA's level, seeding clubs with top international talent seems unlikely to bear fruit.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.


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