Heading east for a bright future

Heading east for a bright future

Migration of players at their prime to China reveals the instability of European clubs

Heading east for a bright future

As the migration of football players from Europe to China continues, much of the rhetoric is falling short on understanding.

After Alex Teixeira's move to Liverpool fell through, and the Brazilian was sold days later for $55 million to the Chinese Super League club Jiangsu Suning, the former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson said in a Liverpool newspaper that Teixeira "must have the professional ambition of a gnat."

Likewise, when the Colombian Jackson Martínez left Atlético Madrid after barely half a season, the presumption was that he couldn't cut it in Madrid. Ramires, the Brazilian sold by Chelsea, and Gervinho, the Ivory Coast striker sold by Roma, are other notable players who have joined Chinese clubs in recent weeks in what The Sun newspaper has called the "Great Haul of China."

Players leaving European clubs and heading to different continents is nothing new, look at Major League Soccer (MLS). But there is a difference between what the Chinese clubs have done and what the MLS did so selectively with big names like David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Andrea Pirlo.

The players heading west to MLS have largely been at the end of their careers, trading their fame for a few seasons in the land of the dollar. Those rushing east to chase the renminbi are closer - much closer - to being in the prime of their careers.

Many of them have been on the money trail since their early teens. Like soccer mercenaries, they have been shipped out of their countries in South America, Africa and, more recently, Asia, by talent spotters to join rich clubs in Europe.

They know no other life. Their place at a top team is dependent on the whim of the coach, whose own tenure might not last a season at any one club. And when playing careers can be ended by the next tackle, why should we blame young men for crossing this final frontier in search of a living?

It might just be - though nobody is betting on it - that a few of the hundreds now playing in the China are intrigued by the challenge of a different culture.

The Lawrenson quip about Teixeira having "the professional ambition of a gnat" if he prefers Jiangsu over Liverpool is in itself dated. When Lawrenson, 58, played in Liverpool's defense 30 years ago, it really was the team to play for.

But Lawrenson, who grew up in northern England, did not have to move far or learn a new language or wonder how long management would last at Liverpool. When he joined the Reds, it was a career move to one of Europe's most stable giants.

There is no such stability today, and very little expectation that a top player (other than Lionel Messi at Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid) will stay in one place for most of their prime.

Besides that, Teixeira was in a place he needed to get out of. He had moved, together with a whole batch of fledging Brazilian players, to Shakhtar Donetsk when they were in their teens.

Then came the civil unrest, the bombing of Shakhtar's fine stadium and the team's move hundreds of miles away, along with the inevitable breakup of the club's Brazilian core, which helped revolutionize soccer in a beleaguered part of eastern Europe.

So Teixeira saw his teammates scatter to clubs that could afford to remove them from Donetsk. He saw negotiations between Liverpool and Shakhtar go to the brink, then collapse at the deadline for transfers in Europe. It was said that the Brazilian only had to wait until the transfer window, in July, and Liverpool would seal the deal.

What were the guarantees on that? Six months is a long time in sports, and probably a longer time for a Brazilian marooned in Ukraine after some of his best pals had flown that nest.

It is human nature for someone like Teixeira - who is extremely talented, by the way - to ask himself, "Why not China?" It would not be unrealistic for him to observe that scores of Brazilians, both top players and coaches, have joined the exodus there.

Athletes do not have to cross cultural boundaries unless they really wish to. They can live wherever fortune takes them, and most barely ever come out of the cocoon that surrounds players. They are encamped in training bases, sealed off from the community around them. Their housing is taken care of, along with the schooling for their kids, their food, even their camaraderie.

This is not exclusive to China. It can happen in Rome, in Madrid, even in Liverpool, because they might be required to play three games nearly every week in a 10-month season, and then they are taken off for overseas tours to make the club even more money and to build the brand.

Those tours invariably go to one of two places - the United States or Asia.
According to legend, the new frontier of China is where soccer developed, centuries before England and Scotland began to export it 150 years ago. China, of course, has gone through periods of upheaval, when its culture and economy and its sports could not even think about competing with the West.

No more. And whatever the slowdown in China's economy, there is clearly enough money left around for its clubs to throw unforeseen fortunes at the talented feet of foreign players.

The players are following the same instinct that Europeans did when they left a century or two ago to find their fortunes in places like Shanghai and Guangzhou: Go east, young man.

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