We’ve all heard and felt it. The hysteria surrounding the cash-fuelled rise of the Chinese Super League (CSL), and how their money is the enemy and those who are seduced by it are mercenaries and charlatans for wanting a better life.
From nowhere, the Chinese upstarts with more money than sense are poisoning the water, destabilising leagues and clubs, unsettling players and flaunting their financial superiority. How dare they?
Lost in all this self-righteousness is an uncomfortable truth. Not many have the fortitude to take their own medicine, and fewer still have the self-awareness to recognise when their recompense comes knocking.
Two and half decades ago, England found themselves in exactly the same position: coming off the post-Heysel European ban, the desire for a global product led to the rebranding of the old English First Division and a rapid influx of unprecedented television revenues.
As a result of this new wealth, the newly formed English Premier League (EPL) was then able to attract top players from across Europe and the world to a previously unfancied football destination.
Now, the world over, footballers dream of playing in the Premier League. Aside the glitz and razzmatazz, the EPL pays the best wages outside of Spain’s top two and Bayern Munich, and can blow a rival foreign club out of the water for any sought-after footballer.
Why then is there so much indignation at Chinese clubs taking the exact same route? They have outlined a plan to make China into a world football superpower, and one of the touchstones is a league that is competitive globally.
To grow a league, you need to attract first-rate talent; in the absence of tradition and a worldwide following, you make use of what you do have: money.
This is fair and all is above board. Whether or not it is sustainable in the long term is their own headache to deal with, not Europe’s. Whether or not it will lead to China winning the World Cup (oddly enough, the explosive expansion of the Premier League has seen the English national team perform worse on average in international competition) or even becoming a regional footballing giant is also their concern.
The players themselves who have chosen to go there have come in for a lot of flak. Earlier this month, Super Eagles captain, John Mikel Obi ended a decade-long association with Chelsea to sign on with Tianjin TEDA, and there is reported to be significant Chinese interest in the Blues’ top scorer, Diego Costa.
The likes of Brazilian midfielder, Oscar and Belgian Axel Witsel have also recently made the move eastward, with the latter in particular stating very clearly that the money on offer was too good for him and his family to turn down.
On the other hand, Ivorian Yaya Toure’s agent, Dmitri Seluk claimed this week that his client turned down a significant pay-rise from a Chinese club in favour of remaining on the books of Manchester City, a club that also splashed some ridiculous amount on current players.
Bayern Munich’s Dutch forward Arjen Robben also granted an interview in which he stated a player moving to China is an acknowledgement that his career is over.
Fair enough, and to each his own. It is easy to forget, sitting in our homes and watching football in search of entertainment, that the game is a career for these players; a relatively short one at that.
We have emotional ties to clubs, and so we expect the players to as well, but they are professionals who are earning a living. If everyone played on some moral code of loyalty, players would not leave their local clubs.
It is no use either trying to pre-empt their frame of mind. There is no central index of happiness, neither is happiness native to Europe.
What is to say that if Diego Costa, for instance, moves to China, his family will not fall in love with the culture there? For some, a settled family is enough; for others, high wages, the top prizes and the bright lights of the Champions League.
It would be unwise though to simply dismiss China out of hand. One is reminded of Sir Alex Ferguson’s “Noisy neighbour” dig at Manchester City a couple of years ago.
The Citizens are now very much a force to reckon with; in the same manner, it behoves us to welcome the new reality of Chinese money. It is here to stay. How sustainable? We all wait to see.
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