Why has there been a growing trend of some of the best players from Europe deciding to make the long move east to play in China? Historically when players were coming to the end of their playing careers at the highest levels in Europe, the normal destination to see out their careers, was usually a lucrative deal to move to America’s MLS. Japan also started attracting some big names in an attempt to promote the game in the country, there. However, neither have taken off to the highest degree that was hoped. So now it seems that it is the turn of China, which is becoming the trending destination for players looking for new challenges when their European heydays have drawn to a close.
In the past 12 months there have been two big names in particular moving from one of Europe’s most prominent leagues, the English Premier League, across to the Chinese Super League. This was Chelsea FC’s French forward Nicolas Anelka who moved in January of 2012 from the London club. Joining him six months later was his former Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba. The big Ivorian became one of the most prolific and prominent forwards in Europe during his long career with the Stamford Bridge side. However, after bowing out with Chelsea in style, his last kick being the penalty which won the Champions League for the Blues, Drogba signed a 2½ year deal with China’s Shanghai Shenhua.
So what is sparking the trend of players making the move from Europe to China? The answer at the end of day, as is usually the case in soccer, is that the players are following the next seam of gold. China’s image in world football has never been anything grandly substantial, because exports from there have been few and far between. With the national side on the decline since 2002, the game in China needs a facelift. So one of the best ways that China can promote the growth of their own domestic and national game, is to throw money at big stars who no longer have the legs for European football. More and more wealthy owners are taking over Chinese Super League sides, starting something of a renaissance in the country’s top league.
So the Chinese deal for big European names is a double-sided coin. For players there is a nice pay cheque to end their career, while for the clubs with which they sign, it is a good exercise in branding and marketing. Other names being linked with moves to China include Italian veteran Andrea Pirlo, who was one of the stars of Euro 2012 and Brazilian Kaka who seems to be unwanted by his current club Real Madrid in Spain. Veteran South American players have already started to ride the wave of wealth towards China at the end of their careers, and now it looks as if Europe’s best are following suit.
While the trend of world stars moving to China is still in its relative infancy, it is a trend nonetheless which is on the rise. Naturally this has led to some internal parties being concerned that the trend will grow so much that it will hurt the development of youth soccer players in the country. China seems to already be behind in developing young players, with the number of under 12 players reportedly being 30 times fewer than the amount of young players coming through the system in Japan.
So is it all a matter of China really being determined to become a new superpower in the world of soccer, or is all a matter of them getting sucked into vanity and trying to compete with the big money spectacle that is the MLS, a destination to where many big European clubs travel to for pre-season friendly matches? Either way, the players seem to be winning.