Passion versus Profit – the Plague of the Chinese Super League

The following is a nonsensical scenario:

It has just been announced that Isaiah Thomas, the point guard for the Boston Celtics currently in the best form of his career, is leaving the National Basketball League (NBA) to play professional basketball in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) on a three-year, 80-million-dollar contract. Suddenly, a number of other great players in the NBA are following suit to play in the PBA for similar fees.

You’re probably scratching your head, thinking, “…the Philippines?”

Trust your instinct, my friend, because you were right: this would never happen in a million years. The NBA is undisputedly home to the highest standard of basketball in the world, and attracts the best basketball players from around the world who are looking to maximize their potential. For a top-quality player like Isaiah Thomas to go to such a minuscule league would be considered the utmost lucrative transfer in the history of the NBA.

Alas, at the end of the day, money talks. A lot.

In fact, it seems to be talking more and more in soccer than in any other sport in the world at this moment in time. Sadly, this hypothetical Isaiah Thomas transfer to the PBA is precisely what is happening in the sport of soccer. Except, instead of the Philippines, soccer fans find themselves scratching their heads, thinking, “…China?”

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Believe it or not, in just the last few months, there has been a wave of highly regarded soccer players moving from various European leagues to the Chinese Super League (CSL).

This wave of European-based talents to China is cancerous to the sport of soccer.

It is important to note that Europe is to soccer as the United States is to basketball in the sense that Europe is home to the highest standard of soccer in the world. In order for the young talents around the world to be taken seriously as top-quality players, they must be able to take their performances in their home countries and perform at the same level in Europe, especially in the five biggest European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France). So if you’re playing in Europe, why would you want to leave?

Well, just ask Alex Witsel, Oscar or Carlos Tevez, just to name three of the many culprits who made the move to China.

What you won’t hear in any of their answers is a rave review of the Chinese soccer scene.

The first professional soccer league in China was founded in 1994, but it quickly became clear that it was riddled with match-fixing, gambling and corruption. Professional soccer in China then underwent a major reformation, which resulted in the creation of the CSL in 2004. Although the CSL consists of 16 teams, Guangzhou Evergrande has won the last six league titles, highlighting the non-existence of competition in China. On the international level, China has never been able to compete with the rest of the world. Since FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, created the world ranking system for international teams back in 1992, China has averaged a ranking of 72nd. Furthermore, China has only qualified for one World Cup in its history back in 2002, where they tumbled out of the group stage, losing all three of their games and conceding nine goals in the process.

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So no, these players are not leaving to improve their game, because the standard of soccer in China is minuscule in comparison to Europe. What you will hear in (at least) one of their answers, though, is money.

Up until January of this year, 28-year old Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, had spent his professional career playing in Belgium, Portugal and Russia. Witsel had not yet breached the realm of the top five leagues, but he had long been good enough to cope with the highest level of competition. Then, following a solid Euro 2016 performance last summer, it seemed as though he would finally get to prove his worth when Italian powerhouse Juventus showed a massive interest in signing the Belgian. Everything was lined up perfectly for Witsel to make that final step up in his career.

That is, until Tianjin Quanjian F.C. of the CSL reached out to him offering a four-and-a-half-year contract with an annual salary of 19.4 million dollars.

Witsel was quickly on his way to China. When asked about his decision, Witsel did not beat around the bush. He explained that, “It was a very difficult decision because on the one hand there was a huge, top club in Juventus, but on the other hand there was an irresistible offer for the future of my family.”

I personally cannot decide whether to admire or despise his honesty, but regardless of how you feel about his response, the reasoning remains the same.

Money talks. A lot.

Another player who listened to the money was 25-year old Brasilian former Chelsea midfielder Oscar who had far more potential than Axel Witsel. This is the same Oscar who, at 21 years old in the Champions League, made a fool out of Italian legend Andrea Pirlo with a world-class cruyff turn and then proceeded to do the same to Pirlo’s fellow Italian legend and teammate Gianluigi Buffon with a world-class finish into the top right corner.

Now, fast forward four years to the arrival of Antonio Conte as Chelsea’s new manager last summer. Oscar had seen a drop in form even before Conte’s arrival, and he fell even farther down the pecking order with Conte’s revolutionary 3-4-3 formation after starting the first five games of the season. Despite his unfortunate form at Chelsea, Oscar could have left and been a starting player for countless teams across Europe.

But alas, money talks. A lot.

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Instead of spending the best years of his career playing for a top-level European side, Oscar decided to play for Shanghai International Port Group F.C, where he will be making roughly $500,000 a week. That breaks down to about $71,000 a day, $3,000 an hour, and $50 a minute. Those numbers speak for themselves. I know, I’m furious too. A massive waste of talent and money.

Last but not least, we have 32-year-old Argentine striker Carlos Tevez. Tevez is a different case than that of Axel Witsel and Oscar because he did not actually go from Europe to China. Also unlike Witsel and Oscar, Tevez had already thoroughly proven himself at the top level. He was a key starting player for Manchester United, the biggest soccer team in the world, as well as their rivals Manchester City, along with Juventus. Instead of going to China and much to the adornment of the global soccer community, Tevez left Juventus to play for his boyhood club Boca Juniors in Argentina where it all started. His return looked like utter pandemonium, and Tevez was set to retire as a Boca Juniors player like a true legend.

But alas, money talks. A lot.

Shanghai Shenhua from the CSL offered Tevez a two-year, $91-million-dollar contract that would officially make him the highest paid soccer player in the world, despite his being well past his prime. That breaks down to about $760,000 a week, $108,500 a day, or $4,500 an hour. After some time of publicly-professed deliberation, Tevez too was on his way to play for Shenhua. This was the same man who, back in 2010 said, “Football is only about money, and I don’t like it.” Funny how times change, huh?

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Well, actually, it’s quite the tragedy.

Again, the Chinese Super League is cancerous towards the sport of soccer. It is hanging crisp dollar bills on a string above the heads of these world-class footballers and baiting them right over the edge of the cliff and into the abyss of irrelevance where they will happily rot in their riches. It is showing fans that, ultimately, players care more about the money than the people who pay to support them.  It is teaching young, aspiring soccer players around the world that monetary success is ultimately more important than playing at the highest level. We as a culture seem to be forgetting what makes the game so beautiful. We play with our feet, but we move with our souls. We live for this game because we love it. Realistically, like back in the day, money should be the last thing we play for.

Thankfully, in the end, we as a soccer community don’t need these players, nor do we want these players. They represent a minuscule portion of the immense pool of talent that exists both in the world and in Europe specifically, and their selfish attitude is not something that the young soccer community needs. There is no way of stopping the offers coming in from the CSL, so all we can really do as fans is to entrust in these soccer players that they remember what the game is played for.

But alas, money talks. A lot.

 

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