For some stars, the path to China’s Super League was paved with riches. But as the country’s soccer fever cools, is there a way back to Europe for the best of them?
Two playmakers joined Chelsea in the summer of 2012, as the club basked in the afterglow of its first Champions League title. Both were young — one just turned 20, the other a year older — and both possessed the sort of gifts that justified both their price tag and their hype.
One stayed for only a few weeks. The club had decided he needed to develop a little further and so sent him on loan to Germany for the season. The other — the younger player, as it happens — appeared to be on a faster track. He went straight onto the first team, making his debut on the opening day of the season.
The former is now, according to most estimations, the finest player in the Premier League: Kevin De Bruyne. He is on the cusp of guiding Manchester City to a third championship in four seasons, and so central to the club’s plans that it would not part with him for any sum of money. He is the standard-bearer for the Belgium team that is ranked as the best international side in the world.
The latter has taken a different path. It is not yet a decade since he was deemed a better, brighter, more can’t-miss prospect than De Bruyne. He is still only 29. He has not played for his national team for five years. The host of suitors who once chased his signature have long since moved onto other targets. It is as though he belongs to a different era, one receding rapidly into the past. European soccer, world soccer, has forgotten about Óscar.
He must have known that this would be the risk, of course, when he accepted the offer he could not resist. Looking back now, 2016 was the year of European soccer’s great Chinese panic. That January, clubs from the country’s Super League started to raid Europe’s grandest leagues, offering to pay such vast fees that few, if any, were in a position to resist.
At one point, the Chinese transfer record was broken three times in the space of 10 days: first for Ramires, the Chelsea midfielder; then for Atlético Madrid’s Jackson Martínez; and finally for Alex Teixeira, a Brazilian playing for Shakhtar Donetsk who, only days earlier, seemed destined to sign with Liverpool.
Óscar would prove to be the era’s high-water mark. In December 2016, Shanghai S.I.P.G. agreed to a deal worth $73 million to sign him from Chelsea. His salary was thought to be worth $26.5 million a year, dwarfing even the fortune he was earning in Europe. Óscar himself did not attempt to disguise his reasoning. “Sometimes, China makes players offers they can’t refuse,” he said later.
It is easy to pick holes in his logic, to disparage his decision as nothing but greed. Óscar was, after all, earning many millions of dollars a year at Chelsea. He was 25: Though soccer can be a capricious industry, he had at least another five or six years of peak earning potential ahead of him. He could have handsomely secured his family’s future while doing the thing that, he has said, brings him the most pleasure: playing at the highest level attainable.
It is, though, only a little harder to understand why he did what he did. Óscar’s father was killed in a traffic accident when he was 3; he does not remember him. His mother, Sueli, raised him and his two sisters by herself. She bought and sold clothes to get by, to put food in mouths.
Óscar has never sought sympathy for the exigencies of his childhood, but he has always made plain that his priority is to help his family. He should not be judged for trying to maximize his potential for all it is worth. Soccer treats players as assets readily enough; it would be hypocritical to denigrate them for seeing themselves the same way.
And yet — purely selfishly, for those who saw him play — his career is now tinged with a sense of dissatisfaction, of something unfinished. Óscar was a player of rare talent: elegant, inventive, technically adroit, tactically astute. There was a reason Chelsea trusted him at 20 and demurred on De Bruyne, at 21: Óscar was ready.
He made more than 60 appearances in his first season, freshly arrived from South America, a key part of the side that won the Europa League that year, treasured by his interim manager, Rafa Benítez, as much for his thought as his touch. Two years later, under the demanding instruction of José Mourinho, he helped Chelsea to the Premier League title.
By the time he turned 25, he should have been hitting his stride. When it became clear he was willing to leave Chelsea, teams from across Europe registered their interest. He talked to Atlético Madrid, Juventus, both Milan clubs. He had lost his place in the Brazil team to Philippe Coutinho; he might, surely, have wrested it back soon enough.
Instead, he made his choice. And he did so, in all likelihood, in the belief that China was not a one-way ticket. Others who were enticed east by the boom — Yannick Carrasco, Paulinho — have managed to return to Europe and, in at least one of those cases, thrive once more. Óscar has always harbored hopes of doing the same: hopefully with Chelsea, but certainly somewhere.
If he is to have any hope of doing so, now would appear to be the time. China’s soccer boom is long since over. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s clubs were cutting costs and tightening belts. Many of that first wave of players, the ones who jump-started the panic of 2016, have gone. Martínez has retired. Ramires is without a club. Teixeira has left Jiangsu, the reigning champion, as doubts surface over the team’s future, and he is likely to resurface in the Persian Gulf. Elsewhere, there is talk of enforced pay cuts, even for the biggest stars.
In theory, Óscar would represent a compelling opportunity for a team smart enough, brave enough, to bring him back. Twenty-nine is no age at all; his “soccer” age may be even younger, thanks to four years in the more sedate environs of the Chinese Super League.
The reality may be different. There is the small matter of his salary, of course, for a player who has always been acutely aware of his worth, of the unavoidable truth that soccer is a transactional market. And there is the stigma to what he did, the idea that playing in China, playing away from the elite, will have dulled the shine and blunted the edges that once made him special.
There is a chance that Óscar will never come back, that he abdicated his place in the elite in the winter of 2016 not for a time, but for good. And there is a sadness in that. Not for him, of course: he has done what he had to do, taken the offer he could not refuse. His career has delivered to him what he always dreamed it would, in at least the most tangible sense. No, the sadness is for us: for all those things that he might have done, for the things we will never get to see.
Decline and Fall
Barcelona lost at home. So did Sevilla. Technically, the same thing happened to Atlético Madrid, although home, in this case, looked an awful lot like Bucharest. It was not until Wednesday night — the last chance to avoid an unwanted clean sweep — that a Spanish team managed to win in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Even then, Real Madrid did not exactly cover itself in glory. Deprived of Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema, the Spanish champion looked every inch the faded force. Atalanta had Remo Freuler sent off — a red card probably best described as disputable — early in the first half, and still Real Madrid toiled, held at bay until Ferland Mendy curled home a shot from distance with 82 minutes gone.
Between 2011 and 2017, Spain boasted two Champions League semifinalists every season. La Liga was, by the most readily available gauge, the strongest league in Europe. In 2018 and 2019, the number of semifinalists dropped to one. Last year, it was down to none. Even allowing for Real Madrid’s particular affinity for this competition, Zinedine Zidane’s team is likely to need a favorable quarterfinal draw to improve that record.
Of course, part of that can be explained by the travails of individual clubs: the well-documented demise of Barcelona, the ongoing sense that Madrid, too, has arrived at the end of an era.
But it may run deeper than that: Atlético Madrid has looked imperious domestically but was made to look callow by the fifth-best team in the Premier League. Spanish teams have won seven of the last 11 editions of the Europa League, but the two clubs likely to remain in the competition beyond this week, Granada and Villarreal, do not look a match for the English contingent.
Perhaps that should not be a surprise. For a decade, La Liga exported ideas to the rest of Europe. In recent years, Germany and England have emerged as the engines of the game’s development, the homes of its most sophisticated, cutting-edge thought. Spain, without really noticing, has been left behind, not just economically, but tactically, too.
The Price of Progress
The story of Kopparbergs/Gothenburg has a happy ending. After 20 years — and a month or so after winning its maiden Swedish title — the team folded in December. Within a few days, it had been rescued by another Swedish club, BK Häcken, and offered a new lease on life. The players now have access to better facilities, more long-term security, and can feel part of a major, multifunctional club.
But the demise of Kopparbergs also contains a warning, one that women’s soccer in Europe has heard before, not least in England and in Scotland. As the big men’s clubs pour money into a game developing at a racecar pace, those teams that have done so much to nurture and support the women’s game are being left behind.
It feels churlish — and, to be honest, at least a bit mansplainy — even to introduce the slightest hint of cold water on the growth of women’s soccer. The infusion of money is welcome, no question. The involvement of men’s clubs is, probably, necessary to accelerate the game’s growth. What matters most of all, of course, is the health of the structure as a whole.
And yet a couple of things remain troubling. First of all: A sport suffers for disregarding its history. There is a richness in the hinterland. Second: That clubs whose priority is their men’s teams are defining the direction of women’s soccer is not ideal.
And third, most of all: Men’s soccer is not perfect. If it were being designed now, it would not be forced into structures first established by the Victorians. The assumption that women’s soccer has to follow that same blueprint is not one that, ultimately, I accept. It is wonderful that Kopparbergs will survive in some form, but it is a shame that a world it helped build has been made into something too inhospitable for it to survive.
A Test of Vision
Neil Lennon was not, he will have known, going to survive this. It might, just about, be acceptable for a Celtic manager to lose the title to Rangers, in some circumstances. But not like this: not when Celtic was going for a historic 10th straight championship, not before the spring, not by 18 points and counting.
That Lennon would have to go at some point — and go he did on Wednesday — has been clear since Christmas, at least. What matters much more, though, is what comes next. As discussed a few weeks ago, the intensity of the rivalry between Glasgow’s twin, repelling poles serves to discourage either of them from thinking long term.
Celtic now has a chance to change that. The identity of Lennon’s replacement is the first test. The temptation will be to go for a stellar name, a manager of the sort of standing and repute that will reassure the club’s bruised fans: someone like Rafael Benítez. Reality might dictate someone like Eddie Howe or Frank Lampard, managers with designs on rebuilding their reputations in England and who might be willing to offer Celtic their coattails. Or maybe a homegrown option, like Hibernian’s Jack Ross.
It depends, though, on what the club wants to be, on where its ambition lies. If its priority is to reclaim its title: Benítez, clearly, and Howe or Lampard if he cannot be tempted.
But if it wants to be counted — along with Red Bull Salzburg and Genk and FC Midtjylland — as an oasis of innovation and imagination in one of Europe’s minor leagues, a place players go to so they can come from, then it needs to think more left field: perhaps a coach from the Red Bull school, like Jesse Marsch or Gerhard Struber, or someone like Brentford’s Thomas Frank, Gerardo Seoane of Young Boys Bern or even the Spaniard Miguel Ángel Ramírez. It will depend on how far Celtic’s horizons stretch: out into Europe, or simply a little way west along the Clyde.
It would be entirely plausible, you know, to dispense with the correspondence section of this newsletter completely and replace it with a segment entitled “What Is Christian Pulisic Up To?” A couple of emails arrive every week asking for updates on the only thing ever to come out of Hershey for which Britain does not have an obvious upgrade.
This week, it was William Eash. “With the change in coaching, he appears to have been relegated to the bench. Any ideas on why that has happened?” It’s simple, really: injury. Or, rather, the compound effect of lots of injuries meaning that Pulisic has not, for some time, been truly fit.
I don’t think there is any real cause for alarm in the short term: Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s new manager, made Pulisic a central figure at Borussia Dortmund while he was a teenager, so he is unlikely to lose faith. Long term, of course, a series of niggling problems can be an issue, but as things stand there’s no reason to leap to that conclusion just yet.
Dan Browning has a technical question: “In a two-legged game that goes to extra time in the second match, doesn’t each team need the same number of goals (and away goals) for that game to go into extra time?” Yes, absolutely. “Then whoever scores the most goals in extra time wins, so accordingly away goals do not count any more.” Mostly, that’s right, Dan, except that if both teams score once in extra time, then the away team still wins on away goals, which is where things get unfair. It is rare, though, if that helps.
And a great idea from Robin Gaster, one so great that it should be adopted immediately, but will never happen, because that is not how these things work. “Why not consider awarding a direct or even indirect free kick for small fouls in the box, reserving penalties for denial of goal-scoring opportunities only?”
Yes, Robin. I am wholly onboard, not least because the introduction of V.A.R. now means penalties for small, basically quite insignificant fouls: Check out the West Brom-Wolves game in January for the most egregious example. That was, technically, a penalty. But it is not what any fan thinks a penalty should be.