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UEFA Champions League can defy Chinese cash attraction

Mark Pitman
SENIOR ANALYST
Editor's Pick
1.85K   //    02 Feb 2017, 00:25 IST
MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid lifts the Champions League trophy after victory in the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos celebrates UEFA Champions League success in 2016

The reported figures on offer have made the entire football world stand up and take notice of the rapidly emerging influence of China on the world game. With weekly salaries resembling telephone numbers, it is inevitable that even the biggest stars will have their heads turned by the promise of such financial riches.

However, the beautiful game was not built upon financial gain, cash or greed, but on dreams of ambition, success and glory. These are the values that may defy China's efforts to tempt the very best away from the European game, as competing in the world's biggest club competition, the UEFA Champions League, is one prize that even China cannot buy.

Already the likes of Oscar, Hulk, Alex Teixeira, Ramires, Alex Witsel, Alexandre Pato, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Tevez, Gervinho, Paulinho and many more familiar names that have competed on the top European stage have been attracted to the Far East, and with the Chinese transfer window open for a further month, more are expected to follow as hard cash remains on offer.

A plan to make China a key player in the world game is being aggressively implemented, and the situation will be monitored carefully by all those with a vested interest in the future of the sport. The UEFA Champions League is an interesting case study when considering the impact of this Chinese revolution, and should the star names that define the competition no longer find themselves competing in it, it's commercial value will suffer as much as its sporting credentials.

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 30: Ex FC Zenit St. Petersburg player Hulk waves goodbye to fans in the halftime of the Russian Football League match between FC Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Lokomotiv Moscow at Petrovsky stadium on July 30, 2016 in St. Peterburg, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
Hulk is one of a number of high-profile players to swap European football for China recently

Of course, there is an irony in the fact that the financial rewards on offer for Champions League success have determined its status in the world club game. But it remains a competition steeped in history and tradition, and some of the greatest names in the game have lifted the famous trophy to create some of the most iconic images that have stood the test of time.

From Di Stefano and Puskas through to Best, Cruyff, Maldini, Ronaldo, Messi and more, the reputation of the competition has not been tainted or changed despite the changes that have occurred in the world game over the course of the last 60 years, and it remains the club honour that defines so many great playing careers. In short, it is a competition that China cannot compete against.

And that is why cash can only buy so much when it infiltrates sport. There have already been concerns over the blanket transfer approach from China for the biggest star names in Europe, and the country themselves accept that the aggressive manner of investment must be curtailed for the good of their own domestic game.

Limiting the number of foreign players will only make the rich richer, as the Chinese clubs funnel their finances into fiscally feeding only the very best. The English Premier League has already set a high standard in paying high salaries, and it is the English that have aimed audible criticism towards the stance taken by China to make themselves a significant player on the world stage, despite the obvious irony.

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Inevitably some players will play for the highest bidder, regardless of the sporting consequences of their actions, but for all that remains good and pure in the game, the very best players must retain a sense of sporting ambition.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 17:  A detailed view of the UEFA Champions League Trophy during the UEFA Champions League Final 2011 Ticket Launch at City Hall on February 17, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
The UEFA Champions League is a trophy that will continue to define playing careers

Few players in the modern-era dreamt of becoming a professional footballer in their formative years purely for the money that such success could bring. It is obviously a welcome bonus, but the parks and playgrounds were stages to recreate cup final winning goals, and not to act out scenes of cars, clothes and other material gains that a successful football career can offer.

The transfer market has significantly altered as China flex their financial muscle with big-name players entering into contract disputes with their current clubs, and how this particular situation evolves over the course of the next few transfer windows will define the future direction of the game across Europe.

However, taking the best players away from the Champions League will affect its commercial attraction to sponsors and broadcasters, and if commercial revenue falls then the knock-on effect to clubs will directly impact future transfer moves and contract negotiations, and not in a positive way.

These are the long-term concerns for clubs competing at the highest levels across Europe, but with players attracted by the short-term financial gains on offer, it is a problem that could become very real if Chinese revenue is here to stay.

It is a complex process, and the real impact will take time to even itself out, but there is no doubt that China is one of the biggest challenges to Europe's top clubs in the modern era.

19th May 1960:  From left to right, Canario, Zarraga, Dominguez, Gento, Di Stefano and Santamaria of Real Madrid tour Hampden Park in Glasgow with their trophy after winning the European Cup. They beat Eintracht Frankfurt by 7-3.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
An iconic image as Real Madrid celebrate European Cup success in 1960

But while emerging markets and new money change the shape of the world game, it is the values of history and tradition that cannot be bought. The European game has the biggest club prize on offer, and when star names look back at their playing careers, their success will be determined by the trophies they lifted, not how much money they pocketed along the way.

There will always be players that believe in the merits of sporting success, and likewise, there will always be players happy to sell their professional soul to the highest bidder, but the beauty of the beautiful game depends on the very best players falling into the former category.

Professional football is a rich and lucrative world that has been built upon basic sporting principles. For the good of the game, these principles cannot be lost to financial gain. China are not doing anything new or anything wrong in investing heavily to develop the game in their country, but they too must have reservations about the real impact of paying huge salaries to big names, when the real aim must be to develop and improve from within.

ATHENS, GREECE - MAY 23:  Milan captain, Paolo Maldini lifts the trophy following his teams 2-1 victory during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Liverpool and AC Milan at the Olympic Stadium on May 23, 2007 in Athens, Greece.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Captain Paulo Maldini lifts the UEFA Champions League trophy with AC Milan in 2007

Joining the great names of the past ultimately requires sporting success, and Europe's biggest and best names must remember where their football dreams began when considering whatever offers appear on the table.

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