With global dominance stretching back to the great Real Madrid side of the 1950s, European football has been the place to be for the top stars for decades. Not just the European stars either—the skillful South Americans were willing to travel thousands of miles. Indeed, the fact that legendary Brazilian striker Pelé spent 18 years on home soil before his only foray out of South America into the USA makes him an anomaly.
It has therefore been no surprise to see some of the best players in the history of the game follow suit. Lionel Messi joined Barcelona’s youth setup after being spotted in his native Argentina. Brazilian striker Ronaldo played for the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, AC Milan and of course—as part of the infamous Galacticos—Real Madrid. Ronaldinho was another Brazilian that set the world alight, bringing his distinctive style to Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Milan.
Yet another Brazilian, Kaka, played several seasons in Milan, winning the Champions League before being crowned Player of the Year in 2007; he became—albeit breifly—the most expensive player in the history of the game when he joined Madrid in 2009. Going back further, Diego Maradona famously played for Barcelona, Napoli (where he is something of a cult hero) and Sevilla, before returning to his native Argentina.
Some of the best players currently in the game come from further afield than the European game we know so well. Neymar and Luis Suarez—alongside Messi—form a formidable front three at Barcelona, and they are from Brazil and Uruguay respectively. Borussia Dortmund’s lightning quick striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is from the small African nation of Gabon, whilst Manchester City have Ivory Coast powerhouse Yaya Toure and Argentine forward Sergio Aguero amongst their stars.
The list goes on and on, including players from most title-winning sides in the top European divisions. But European football is under threat from Asia, where mega-rich Chinese super-clubs have been splashing the cash in an attempt to raise the profile of the game.
The likes of Tim Cahill, Ramires and Paulinho had already been playing the game they love for vast sums of money in the Asian powerhouse, but it seems that China has upped its game recently.
Ex-Manchester United and Manchester City forward Carlos Tevez reportedly became the world’s highest-earning footballer when he agreed a deal with Shanghai Shenhua worth a rumoured £615,000-per-week. And Chinese corporations that are bankrolling the revolution have enabled the national transfer record to be broken five times within a year. Brazilians Hulk, Oscar and Alex Teixeira have all made the switch, whilst Argentinian forward Ezequiel Lavezzi has also made the move to the Far East along with Southampton’s Italian striker Graziano Pelle.
But it is the Oscar transfer to Shanghai SIPG for £60million that has caused the greatest anxiety for fans of the biggest teams and stars in European football. There have been attempts in the past to start a footballing revolution in the far corners of the world—most notably in the USA, where the likes of LA Galaxy, New York City FC and New York Red Bulls were able to tempt David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and Robbie Keane to cross the Atlantic. The difference with those deals, however, is that all of the aforementioned players were in the twilight years of their careers. Gerrard recently announced his retirement from the game after a spell with the Galaxy, Beckham was seen as the poster boy for the game in the States, and Henry was a true superstar; yet, they were still past their primes.
Henry had achieved everything in the European game: he won the league with Arsenal and Barcelona, became a World and European Champion with France, and won the Champions League with Barcelona. Beckham had captained his country at two World Cups and a European Championship, won titles with Manchester United and Real Madrid, and been part of the incredible treble-winning side with United. America was seen as the place for ageing stars to go as their career dwindled and came to an end.
China is a different threat, though. The amount of money that the clubs can offer is eye-watering and is beginning to turn the heads of even the best players in the world.
Diego Costa has been in incredible form for Chelsea but was left out of the squad for some matches after supposedly falling out with manager Antonio Conte when he was offered in excess of £570,000 a week to join Tianjin Quanjian. Were he to leave for the big money on offer in China, it could spark a worrying trend. European football’s biggest stars may follow suit, and Europe may no longer be the prime location for the game’s superstars.
Even with the Premier League TV deal worth more than £1billion over three years, English clubs—richer than their rivals on the continent—cannot even begin to rival the deals on the table from China.
For the sake of the game, one has to hope that players see past the money on offer and continue competing at the highest level. And for the time being at least, the highest level is in Europe.