Recent events have given us more examples of how money is the all-pervasive factor in the modern football world; its influence and lure growing year on year. For the first time since the deal that created the Premier League was inked with Rupert Murdoch’s News International, the English game is facing a potentially even wealthier rival in the form of the self-acclaimed Chinese Super League.
The first shots across the bow came with the high-profile acquisition in record deals of players who were known in Europe and at their peak age-wise; as opposed to the big-name veterans looking for one last huge pay day before heading into retirement, which had traditionally been the hallmark of the approach to building new leagues in countries where football isn’t the dominant sport. Players such as Ramires (£25m), Jackson Martinez (£31m), Alex Teixeira (£38m) and Hulk (£46m) were all current international players and featured regularly within the transfer rumour mill of the European game; although most Arsenal fans would argue that the circa £15m paid for Gervinho was way too much of anybody’s money and showed a lack of football understanding, let alone any semblance of common sense!
The threat has escalated further during this transfer window with 25-year old Brazil international Oscar leaving Chelsea in a deal reportedly worth £60m to Chelsea and £400,000 a week for the player. I won’t profess to know a great deal about the standard of Chinese football but I can’t believe that it is of a higher level than leagues such as the J-League, A-league and MLS, which haven’t exactly proven especially tempting for top-line Champions League level players. It can therefore only be concluded that the motivation behind the move is a financial one rather than a football one.
Hot on the heels of the Oscar deal came rumours that Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez are next on the shopping list; the Arsenal man will be out of contract in the summer of 2018, unless a new deal can be agreed, and rumours have abounded about the eye-watering sums that would be available to him if he decided to ditch the English game and head to China. Having watched the Chilean in action over the past two and a half seasons, I for one find it hard to believe that his plainly evident competitive spirit and will to win would be anywhere near sated in what is essentially not even a second-rate competition. It can only be hoped that his demonstrative sulking at being subbed at Swansea at the weekend was a reflection of his true character and not some ill-conceived attempt to engineer a move.
Costa’s behaviour over this last week has been very much construed as strategic positioning in order to renegotiate the terms of his contract. First came the news of a training ground bust-up and him either not being fit or dropped for the game at Leicester, depending on whose version of events you choose to believe. Then came news of the almost inevitable mega-bucks offer from China swiftly followed by rumours that the player is demanding £300K a week to stay at Chelsea.
In both the Sanchez and Costa cases I find it hard to comprehend that either player would truly be happy with a move to what is essentially a footballing backwater; these are both players who, if not from the very highest echelon in the European game, are certainly at a level or two above Oscar and the others who have taken the Oriental bounty. Would they really swap competing at the highest levels in Europe just for the money; it is hardly as if either is on the breadline?
In trying to understand both players’ use of the offers from China, in many ways Luis Suarez recently agreeing a new deal with Barcelona worth a reported £230K a week played into the hands of other major European clubs as it established a going rate for top strikers. With reduced wiggle room it may be that Costa and Sanchez are attempting to use the vast fortunes available in China to strengthen their negotiating positions.
Intriguingly just as the market seemed to be exploding, the Chinese football authorities announced a cap on the number of foreign players that would be permitted per game to three. The move clearly makes sense from a developmental point of view and will most likely slow down the wave of mega-money signings; it may also have eroded further the bargaining positions of players like Sanchez and Costa.
The other player power news from the week centred on West Ham’s French maverick Dimitri Payet, who declared himself on strike after the club rejected a £20m bid to take him back to Marseille. While it is tempting to be critical of any player who refuses to play, and to assume that it is money-related; perhaps in this case the player merits some understanding if not sympathy. Payet arrived from L’OM in the summer of 2015 as the French club were struggling financially and needed to get the bigger wage-earners off their books. While it is probably fair to say that the player has been a shadow of the one we saw in 2015/16 and seems to have been agitating for a move ever since he returned from the Euros; the rumours that suggest that he has rejected a potential £500K a week from China, that he would be taking a pay cut in returning to France and that his partner and children have already returned to Marseille may just suggest that for once this is a genuine story of unhappiness.