The Chinese market is a danger for all”, Antonio Conte said yesterday.
It certainly is — and if the Chelsea manager is shocked and alarmed by the absurd sums Shanghai SIPG are willing to spend in order to make Oscar the third best-paid player in world football, behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he is not the only one.
He is a talented player, Oscar, but let us be clear about this. If a Chinese Super League (CSL) club are prepared to offer him £400,000 a week after tax, in addition to offering Chelsea a £60 million transfer fee for a player who has played 27 minutes of Premier League football since mid-September, it is confirmation — barely needed, surely, after Shandong Luneng signed Graziano Pellè from Southampton on £260,000 a week in the summer — that the football world has gone mad. Carlos Tévez is understood to have been offered an even bigger contract by Shanghai Shenhua amid reports that Alexis Sánchez, the Arsenal forward, will be offered more still by Hebei China Fortune.
This is football’s new reality. There were hints of it last January, when Ramires left Chelsea for Jiangsu Suning, who also outmuscled Liverpool to sign Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk in a £38 million deal. This January will bring bigger offers made to better players who will provide stardust and perhaps marketability to Chinese football — not just fading legends but those who, like Oscar, could be willing to spend the best years of their career in China in exchange for an enormous salary.
The sums are absurd, of course they are, and they look totally unsustainable, but the intention is for China’s many billionaires to keep subsidising the CSL until such a time when it can finally sustain itself. It is all part of President Xi Jinping’s vision to turn China into a “world football superpower” by 2050. As such, the threat felt by European clubs is very real.
Hang on a moment, though. For all the tut-tutting, is there not a great hypocrisy when it comes to English clubs and concerns of inflating or distorting the market? Go and ask them in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Portugal what they think of the English market. Wonderful when it comes to filling their coffers with the exorbitant fees and wages paid by Premier League clubs, certainly, money that in turn trickles down football’s food chain, but all that transfer revenue comes at considerable cost to their previous ambitions to preserve talent and competitiveness in their own leagues.
To a large extent, this is the way that the economics of world football have evolved over the past two decades, English football’s resurgence — at league level, at least — and the growth of the Champions League coinciding with the digital age. The Premier League, as a collective, has put itself in the right place at the right time to capitalise, as have Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, who have been able to tighten a domestic stranglehold as well. Elsewhere, other European leagues have almost been reduced to satellite status. Once-mighty clubs such as Ajax, Benfica and Celtic have come to accept that evolution has seen them drop down European football’s food chain.
It is not just English football’s wealth that has done this, but the Premier League boom — fuelled by extreme spending, much of it made possible by billionaire foreign investors — has served to widen those inequalities. “We are playing the same sport, but they [English clubs] are playing a different game,” Herman van Holsbeeck, the Anderlecht general manager, told The Times last year, lamenting a situation that sees Belgium’s biggest club earn £32 million a year while the club finishing bottom of the Premier League earns £100 million in broadcast revenue alone.
Before anyone says that Premier League clubs are merely spending the money that they generate, through their vast broadcast and commercial revenue, this is a relatively new phenomenon for most of them. It was certainly not the case in 2009, when the overall debt of the 20 Premier League clubs stood at £3.1 billion, or even in 2012-13, when 12 of the 20 made a loss. It is only in the past few years, enriched by further surges in broadcast revenue and restrained by their regulations on spending, that Premier League clubs have been able to speak, as a collective, from a position of financial strength.
So, yes, the Chinese market is a danger for all, as Conte says, but there will be those across Europe and perhaps beyond who howl with laughter if lectures start to come from England. If the powers behind the CSL imagine that they can spend their way to pre-eminence, sucking up whatever talent they can get hands on, blowing other clubs and leagues out of the water, then we can safely say that we know what gives them the confidence it can be achieved.
Birmingham owners may rue letting ‘dead shark’ Rowett depart
In football, you can never stand still. So said Panos Pavlakis, the Birmingham City director, this week in explaining the dismissal of Gary Rowett, the most bewildering managerial change of the season so far in the madhouse known as the Sky Bet Championship.
If it raised a flicker of a smile, amid the disapproval, it was because it was a reminder about Woody Allen’s line about relationships at the start of Annie Hall. “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know,” Allen’s character Alvy Singer says. “It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we’ve got on our hands is a dead shark.”
In the eyes of Pavlakis and the three new directors from Trillion Trophy Asia Limited (TTAL), Birmingham’s latest owners, their relationship with Rowett was in “dead shark” territory. Move forward or die. Never mind what Rowett had done over his two years in charge, taking over a club in deep relegation trouble, fresh from an 8-0 home defeat by Bournemouth, restoring a sense of purpose and direction (as well as much-needed calm and respectability), coping with serious and much-needed reductions to the wage bill to take Birmingham to within a point of the play-off zone. It was time, as Pavlakis put it, to “embrace the future as we begin to implement the exciting vision of TTAL”. Within a few hours, Gianfranco Zola had been appointed as manager.
Few would argue with the Alvy Singer principle of “move forward or die”, but then again we are talking about the Championship, a league in which the benefits of continuity and stability are underlined year after year. Sometimes it pays to play the long game.
Take a look at the clubs promoted to the Premier League in recent years: Burnley, Middlesbrough and Hull City last term, Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City the season before, Leicester City, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers the year before that. How many of those managers were in their first year in the job? One, Slavisa Jokanovic, who was promptly moved on by Watford, whose success with a highly volatile approach, hiring and firing coaches with great regularity, has not exactly been matched elsewhere.
Zola was one of those coaches sacked by Watford, to some degree of consternation at the time, and it is in the hope of delivering that “exciting vision” that the new board at Birmingham have gone for him. Good luck with that. From here, it looks like a familiar case of a board with very little football knowledge and even less experience opting to replace a little-known manager who was doing a fine job in difficult circumstances, with someone they have actually heard of. Surely the success of Burnley, Bournemouth and Leicester shows the value of building something durable and giving a manager the time to improve the team. The clubs with a succession of dead sharks on their hands tend to be those who have never taken the time to put foundations in place, let alone build on them.