Brazil’s Surly Spring revolution continues apace, with eight wins out of eight from the Grinch from Rio Grande do Sul. Yet danger surely lurks around the corner. Who is it that the-country-formerly-known-as-o-país-do-futebol fears the most? The party-poopers at the national tragedy that was the 1950 World Cup final, Uruguay? Messi, Di María, Agüero and the rest of the Argentinian wildlings from beyond the wall? Joachim Low’s dead-eyed Germans, perhaps the most perfect synthesis of muscle and grace since Vin Diesel? Dunga himself?
All of the above, probably. Soon, however, another name might be added to the list, thanks to the ever-growing financial might of Chinese soccer. According to a German study, Super League clubs spent a record U$117 million in the most recent transfer window, with a large chunk of that cash going on the two best players from last year’s Campeonato Brasileiro, Brazilian internationals Diego Tardelli and Ricardo Goulart, who were snapped up by Super League clubs Shandong Luneng and Guangzhou Evergrande respectively. Restaurant orders of arroz e feijão (the Brazilian culinary staple of rice and beans) have reportedly skyrocketed across the country, with around two dozen Brazilians now plying their trade in China.
The Brazilian invasion has been marked by stealth, with most of the 134 players that moved to the country between 2003 and 2010 either veterans or taken from smaller Brazilian clubs. Slowly but surely, however, the players moving to China grew in stature – in 2010, Guangzhou Evergrande signed promising striker Muriqui from Atlético-MG for $3.4 million, and soon after big name Brasileirão stars such as former Flamengo striker Obina and Botafogo forward Elkeson, the Super League’s top scorer and player of the year last season, made the move.
Brazilians aren’t the only foreign players on the shopping lists of Chinese clubs. For some time now talent from all over South America has been making its way to the Super League, even if, due to the Campeonato Brasileiro’s financial dominance in the region, such players often first play for a Brazilian club.
One of the most high profile signings came in 2011, when Fluminese’s Argentine midfielder Dario Conca, the Campeonato Brasileiro player of the year in 2010, moved to Guangzhou Evergrande. Conca’s $250,000 weekly salary reportedly made him the third-highest paid player in the world at the time, behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. After spending the last year back at Fluminense, he has now returned to China with Shanghai SIPG.
Another Argentinian, Hernan Barcos, known as El Pirata, moved from Grêmio to Tianjin Teda in January, while midfielder Walter Montillo, who had starred for Cruzeiro and (to a lesser extent) Santos in Brazil, signed for Shandong Luneng in 2014. Wandering Argentina-born, naturalized Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios somewhat surprisingly switched Borussia Dortmund for Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012, while Bolivian striker Marcelo Moreno, who helped lead Cruzeiro to the Brazilian title last year, signed with Changchun Yatai earlier this year.
While the main reason so many South Americans are moving to China is financial – the wages on offer are dizzyingly in excess of what players might receive in Brazil, where salaries are in turn at least three times higher than the next most generously paying South American league, Argentina – local moaning that such players are mere mercenaries overlooks key factors pushing South America’s (almost) finest toward the East.
Perhaps most important is the unhappy lot of the average player back home. Even in the continent’s most affluent league, Brazil, clubs are mired in debt, salaries are often paid late (if at all), and infrastructure is sometimes chaotic. A recent protest at the draconian behavior of the local FA, which had penalized Flamengo coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo for openly criticizing the competition, saw players from Flamengo and Fluminense covering their mouths prior to kick-off in the Rio de Janeiro state championship clássico. A few days earlier, Internacional defender Fabricio suffered this meltdown after being derided by his own fans, while a player protest group, Bom Senso FC, has formed to demonstrate against the ramshackle state of the club game in the country. Things are not much better elsewhere – driven by the notorious barra brava gangs, fan violence in Argentina is rife.
Another factor behind the current South American march to the east is that for the majority of the players involved, there are unlikely to be many offers on the table as tempting as those from Chinese clubs. While Europe and the glamor of the Champions League remains the dream, no top European team was likely to spend $320,000 per month on a Diego Tardelli, with his up-and-down career and his 30th birthday fast approaching.
The same is true for Goulart, a lively and powerful striker, but a player who lacks the guile, technique and stardust to generate a Neymar or Lucas Moura-style transfer frenzy. Barcos, Montillo and Conca too were good, if not truly great players who were already in their mid to late-20s, or older, by the time they moved to China.
If such players had sought a move to Europe, it would most likely have been to a league outside the “Big Four” of England, Spain, Germany and (just about) Italy, with detrimental financial ramifications, especially now that most European clubs are no longer throwing their money around with quite the same abandon.
The conflict currently wracking Ukraine has also removed some of the competition that China has faced. In recent years, Shakhtar Donetsk, in particular, was seen as an ideal first stop in Europe for players from the region, with the current squad including a host of Brazilians, including occasional internationals Bernard and Douglas Costa. Another former Cruzeiro player, full-back Egídio, recently rescinded his contract with Dnipro after the club reportedly failed to pay his wages for three months.
Not that China is in a position to snap up South America’s footballing genuine crown jewels just yet. Despite the presence of big name managers such as Fabio Cannavaro (recent legal woes notwithstanding) and Sven Goran Eriksson, the image of the world’s most populous nation remains that of a footballing backwater, and the quality of the Super League is some way from that of Europe’s top leagues.
Cultural issues are another obstacle. Young South American soccer players, who often tend to be from working-class backgrounds, are not always the most worldly. If Europe can seem like a world away from the comforts of home, what must they make of Chinese exoticism?
“It’s not easy to send a young player to China. It’s better to send older players, who are 27 or over … it’s a sacrifice for a Brazilian player to play in China, but they go there for the financial independence it gives them,” soccer agent Reinaldo Pitta told Brazilian radio earlier this year.
“Soccer is like any other export market. We make good players. The USA will grow (as a buying market) too. Soccer is the biggest multinational business in the world. It’s not just Brazil. Argentina, Columbia and Paraguay are in the same boat. We develop the talent, and they buy it,” he went on.
In this sense, the Goulart signing may represent a key moment in Chinese-Brazil soccer relations. While players such as Tardelli, Montillo and Barcos were entering if not the twilight, then at least the late afternoon, of their careers, Goulart was just 23 and, according to at least one poll, the current Brazilian player of the year when he switched Belo Horizonte for Guangzhou. It was a move that stirred up considerable unrest among Brazilian fans and journalists.
With the financial clout of the Chinese economy, that unrest is likely to grow over the coming years. “Now it’s official – soccer is a priority for China” warned a recent splash on the front page of the sports section of the reputable Folha de São Paulo newspaper. The paper went on to describe how president Xi Jinping and prime minister Li Keqiang had met to discuss the future of the game in the country, promising to make soccer compulsory in schools and build “thousands of pitches.” “The message is clear,” fretted the Folha, “being the biggest economy in the world and a global power isn’t enough. China wants to be a soccer giant as well.”
While the day when China beats Brazil at soccer is undoubtedly a long way off, the fact that if not for injury, Neymar’s partner up front in the recent friendlies against France and Chile would likely have been a forward, Tardelli, who plays his club soccer not in Barcelona, Madrid or Munich, but in Shandong, made a lot of people sit up and take notice. The times, they really are a-changing – as Confucius might have said.