When Brazil lined up against Argentina in a World Cup qualifier towards the end of last year, teenage forward Gabriel Jesus was the only home based player in the side, and he was on his way to Manchester City. The rest of the line-up was drawn from Italian football (3 players), two each from Spain and England, one from France – and two from further afield.
In the engine room of the team, the two box to box midfielders, Paulinho and Renato Augusto, had travelled all the way from China. A couple of years earlier, such an event would have been unthinkable. A move to the Far East would effectively end (or at least interrupt) the international career of a Brazilian player. But now, as Renato Augusto pulled the midfield strings and Paulinho gave a man of the match performance, it was no longer an issue.
It was a fascinating example of the rise of Chinese football, its huge financial power and the level of player it can attract - and it also highlighted where China has been looking. True, Argentine great Diego Maradona has recently been announced as an ambassador for the Chinese league, and his friend Carlos Tevez has become a recent signing, trading Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires for Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, where he features alongside two Colombians in a team coached by the Uruguayan Gus Poyet.
The overwhelming choice, though, has been for players from Brazil. Of the 16 first division clubs, only five have no Brazilians in their squad. The other eleven all have at least two and in some cases three. Some are journeymen professionals who have been there for a while. Others are big names who have been enticed from Europe, such the former Chelsea pair of Ramires and Oscar, or Alex Teixeira, who was being linked with major Western European clubs while he was in Ukraine. Alongside Paulinho and Renato Augusto, there are twelve other Brazil internationals currently making their living in the Chinese Superleague.
It is easy to locate the moment when this new trend in the international transfer market became very clear. The 2015 model Corinthians side looked to be the best team that Brazil had produced in some time – its success in cruising to the league title propelled coach Tite to the national team job a few months later. But suddenly in January of last year the team ceased to exist. The Chinese came shopping, both the club and the players found the offers too good to refuse. It came as a huge shock. Fans of Brazilian clubs now breathe a sigh of relief when the Chinese transfer window slams shut.
In part, this preference for Brazilian talent shows that, for all of the problems of the national team in the last World Cup, the country still retains a certain cache. There continues to be a sense of magic attached to signing a big name Brazilian.
And also, fundamentally, Brazilians are available. It is, of course, a massive generalisation, with all of the problems that such declarations entail. But it seems fair to assume that financial considerations are an especially high consideration for a significant amount of Brazilian players – either as a consequence of the trauma of poor upbringings, or because they can be expected to sustain an extended family. Anyway, given the chances of chasing lucrative glory in Europe’s Champions League, some Brazilians (and Alex Teixeira is a case in point) appear happy to settle for an even more lucrative contract to play in China and forget the glory – for the time being at least.
It will indeed be interesting to see the effect this acquisition of Brazilian talent has on long term standards. An optimistic prediction would be that it may save the Club World Cup, a competition so far greatly undermined by the huge disparity of forces between the champions of Europe and the other continents. Imagine a scenario in which the Asian champions is capable of holding its own with the European side – either a Chinese team or a club from elsewhere in the continent forced to develop in order to overcome the Chinese financial strength.
Spending power alone, however, does not bring guarantees. And at present Chinese clubs are limited to three foreign players – meaning that both in the short term and in the long the success of the project is dependent on their being able to develop their own stars.
Edgar Alencar, a Brazilian sports journalist until recently based in Beijing, sees problems ahead, in large measure because of the Chinese only child policy, which only recently has been slightly relaxed. For a start, having just one son makes it less likely that the families will place much importance on such an insecure profession as football. Second, Alencar argues, the one child policy can generate a mentality which is not conducive to success at team sports; with everyone reluctant to be the one held responsible for defeat, caution reins and no one takes risks. In this sense, the presence of foreign stars may even be counter-productive, if all the responsibility is handed to them and no one else is prepared to step up to the plate.
It is an interesting perspective, and one which points to a debate on the role of foreign players in a new football culture. Have they been invited to improve standards and inspire the next generation? Or merely to cover up the defects of the current group of local players? It will take some time before any definitive conclusions can be reached about whether Chinese football is spending wisely.