The Chinese Super League is, you may have noticed, on a rampage.
Various market forces have combined to render previous Asian transfer records antiquated, and have even transpired to make Carlos Tevez the highest paid footballer on the planet.
The Asian transfer record has been broken four times in the last year, and contrasts are repeatedly drawn between football’s current transfer climate and that which saw players the ilk of Pele and George Best ply their trade in the USA during the 1970s.
However, the Chinese football league poses a sterner threat to the established elites than ever before. While Major League Soccer (MLS) has provided players with a lucrative retirement home for those of an older vintage, the Chinese Super League is intent on attracting players much closer to their peak. Recent Shanghai SIPG signing Oscar is just 25 and now looks assured to spend his most productive footballing years in China rather than challenging for the game’s most prized trophies in Europe.
Rumours abound at the moment linking players who have plenty still to offer to the Far East. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, aged 27, has repeatedly been linked with Shanghai SIPG. Mikel John Obi, aged 29, surely still has plenty to offer in Europe. Alas, his recent signing for Tianjin TEDA means we will never know for sure.
More worrying still is how insistent much of the media has been to defend these players. As professionals, we are repeatedly told that it is their right to pursue the career path most lucrative, to cash in while they still can.
Such an attitude not only adds to the continuing drain of talent from Europe’s leagues, it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a professional.
Professional footballers are gifted and have dedicated years to their craft to get to such an elite level. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an industry as coveted by more people. Boys that do not grow up dreaming of playing professional football are few and far between, but the overwhelming majority of these see such aspirations evaporate a long way below the elite ranks.
As we observe headlines about La Liga or Premier League players, we are reading about players that have become successful in an industry so competitive it is difficult to conceive. And yet, as professionals, we hold them to such low standards off the pitch.
The mark of being a true professional is not simply measured by a player’s wage bill. The aim of Oscar should not be to cash in having reached the required technical ability. Professional footballers should be driven by something more, something which can’t be offered by the Chinese Super League.
It has been reported frequently how the standard in China is several rungs below not European Leagues, but even MLS. The notion of Hulk and Oscar slaloming around players as if they were static objects is likely an exaggeration but it bears an uncomfortable proximity to the truth.
Indeed, the standard in the CSL is so low it can be argued that the likes of Tevez cease to be footballers upon their arrival. Their raison d’etre is no less striking the ball, more striking poses for promotional materials. Tevez is hardly in China because of his current ability to score goals, nor his speed over 100m. He is there for his name, his brand. He is now less a football player, more a billboard. He acts as an advertisement to the youth of China and is a figurehead which Chinese officials can point to, an example of the CSL’s enhanced pulling power.
Footballers are already paid huge, some would say obscene, amounts of money to play football in Europe. In exchange for this they reach extremely high standards. It is rarely commented on, but the work rate and skill level of your average Premier League player is mind boggling, the scrutiny they are subjected to cruel.
Professional footballers are forced to display their abilities to the world on a weekly basis, and even a slight drop in performance is commented on, critiqued and castigated endlessly. When watching the players at Europe’s elite clubs, there is a comfort in knowing that you are watching the very best footballers in the world at the peak of their powers. There is hardly an industry in existence which compels its members to such regular and public trials of their ability.
And yet, at the first whiff of a higher wage, many deem it acceptable to trade quality of craft for quantity of cash. We should demand more from professional players. We should demand that they strive to be the best they can be, that they make the most of their talents and seek to achieve what they can on Europe’s grandest footballing pedestals.
When musicians churn out tacky music far below the standards they are capable of in the hope that they can make more money as a result, they are quickly labeled ‘sell-outs’, their reputations left scarred.
It is time that Oscar and his counterparts are given similar treatment.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena