Why a move to China makes sense for some footballers
In June 2015, a 31-year-old Carlos Tevez returned to his first club Boca Juniors to realise his childhood dream of winning the Argentine first division title. No one could really hate him for such a move; in fact, there was a view that this was one of the more heartwarming stories in modern football. After all, he had followed his heart rather than the retirement havens in the USA and the middle east.
Today, a certain Carlos Tevez earns more than 1.5 times that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – two of the best footballers – earn, in the process becoming the highest paid football player in the planet. When we realise that, it dawns upon us that the landscape of football has changed dramatically.
“China!”, we roar in indignation; “China!”, we sigh in exasperation; it is just too difficult to digest the crazy money being thrown around.
However, for every Alex Teixeira who could have arguably made better career choices, there is a Graziano Pelle for whom no other transfer would have made better sense. As tempting as featuring for Southampton can be for a 31-year-old Italian striker, it certainly can't top being amongst the 10 highest earning players in the world. Despite all the angry glances and bitter remarks being brandished at the mighty Chinese investors, there are certain footballers whose emigration to China makes sense for all parties involved.
Here we take a look at why a move to China makes sense for some footballers:
China is a country that boasts a population approaching 1.5 billion. To put it into perspective, the whole of Europe together has a population of around 745 million. Nearly one in every 5 people in the world is Chinese.
So when an opportunity arises to be the face of football revolution in such a country, it is not quite a straightforward decision to turn down.
Chelsea fans will remember Oscar as a player who made decent contributions in a period of moderate success – but for football lovers in China, Oscar will forever represent a milestone signing that attracted the attention of the globe.
The time and age of footballers moving to relatively obscure leagues and then being unheard of are long gone. The extent of globalisation ingrained in the 21st century means that players remain as much under the radar whether they play in Europe, Asia or America. Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has insisted that Axel Witsel's career will be keenly followed in China; Graziano Pelle found a place in Italy coach Ventura's squad even after his move to Shandong Luneng.
Jermain Defoe (moved to Toronto FC in 2014) and Didier Drogba (moved to Shanghai Shenhua in 2012) are two among the players who eventually made returns to the Premier League, refuting any suggestions that players might lose their quality and touch after years of competing at a lower level league.
Moves to China, US or Qatar no longer necessarily represent the drawing of curtains for careers the way they used to – so footballers don't need to ruminate upon such a move quite so much.
An exhilarating adventure
The nature of professional football is as fickle as it is rewarding. Upon retirement from football, players tend to find that there isn't much else they love to do – so other than the few that turn pundits or coaches, the rest have a tough time finding an alternate career even at a young age of 35 or 40.
So why shouldn't they travel the world in the limited time they have? Far from the familiar landscapes of Europe and America, a move to China accords a footballer the opportunity to be away from all the media circus, plying his trade in a beautiful country with a rich culture.
Just as with the rest of us, many footballers would have 'travel the world' near the very top of their bucket lists, and what better way to travel to China than as a genuine ambassador for Chinese football?
Finally, it all comes down to this. Admit it, whatever job you are doing right now, if your boss tells you that you can do the same job in a work environment with less pressure, for five times the salary, that's not an offer you are going to turn down.
Despite all talk of "competing against the best", many footballers realise that they need to save up for the inevitable rainy day in their careers – the day when every touch goes wide and tricks no longer come off the way they used to. Playing in China for even one year may provide the kind of money that can settle him for life.
It might sound greedy, at first, but then one should remember that the Premier League is not very different. All 20 teams in the Premier League are richer than even midtable teams in the rest of the top European leagues – that’s why teams like Stoke City and West Ham have the financial power to sign quality players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Dimitri Payet, respectively. For Germany, Spain and the rest, England was just another China before the arrival of Chinese money.
Despite the Chinese government's assertions that irrational investment will be regulated and reasonable restrictions on players' incomes made, Chinese clubs do not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Diego Costa reportedly had his head turned in January, and that is coming from a player who is virtually guaranteed a title if he is to stay for another 6 months. Arsene Wenger and Antonie Conte, among others, have expressed their concerns over the limitless spending potential from the far east.
But at the same time, there are a few footballers for whom the entire package makes sense – whether it be due to the money involved, the adventures on offer, or simply for a stint in a league where their presence is genuinely cherished. Let's not judge a player, therefore, just because he has a Chinese club in his CV.
Rather, as Jose Mourinho believes, let’s grant them the freedom to write the story of their own career – they have earned the right for that.