How much poking and prodding of calves and thighs was allowed went unreported, though it is to be assumed that the players were treated humanely throughout the bidding process. Either way, Indian’s Premier League Soccer auction passed off smoothly enough last week.
Hernán Crespo was the prime rib – going, going, gone to Barasat for a cool £536,000, while there was fine rump steak in the form of Fabio Cannavaro and Robert Pires, both priced at over £500,000. Robbie Fowler and Jay Jay Okocha, meanwhile, had a look of ground beef about them at around £300,000 apiece. They will be joined in West Bengal by managers Peter Reid and Fernando Couto, among others. In all, the six teams of Premier League Soccer, the brainchild of the Celebrity Management Group and the Indian Football Association, spent close to £4.5 million on their slightly dusty new treasures.
“’The league is modelled on Major League Soccer and of course IPL (cricket’s Indian Premier League). We saw the hype and buzz around the players’ auction in IPL and feel it can be an equal success. It’s a brilliant concept,” Bhaswar Goswami, the executive director of CMG, chortled confidently.
At roughly the same time, around 10,000 miles away in Brazil, a couple of notable signings were also under discussion. While not as eye-catching as events in India, the transfers of Jádson from Shaktar Donetsk to São Paulo, and Argentina’s Andrés D’Alessandro from Internacional to Shanghai Shenhua, said some interesting things about football and what might, one day, be the new world order.
D’Alessandro’s move was noteworthy, of course, chiefly because it didn’t happen. In June last year another pixyish Argentinian midfielder creator, Dario Conca, elected the Brasileirão´s best player in 2010, was spirited away from Fluminense by Guangzhou Evergrande, in return for a remarkable salary that made him the world’s third best paid player behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
When Shanghai moved for D’Alessandro, Inter’s midfield lynchpin and an important figure in the development of Oscar and Leandro Damião, it seemed that history would be repeated. Yet Inter fought off the Chinese bid, managed to convince D’Alessandro of the merit of the club’s plans for the future and his place in them, and the player turned the move down. Inter´s fans played their part too. Throughout the Libertadores qualifying round tie against Once Caldas a couple of weeks ago, 40,000 of them begged him to stay. It worked.
The largesse of Chinese clubs is no secret. Just ask Conca or Nicolas Anelka, earning a reputed £175,000 a week at Shanghai. Neither is the idea of Brazilian footballers playing in China a new one. Muriqui, ex Atlético Mineiro, is Conca’s colleague at Evergrande, and was elected the Chinese Super League’s Player of the Year for 2011, while former Flamengo idol Obina is at Shandong Luneng.
If Chinese football pulled off a coup with the signing of Conca, then Brazil and Inter won the D’Alessandro tug-of-war, just. Though it is unlikely to be the last transfer battle between the two countries.
On one side, there is the booming Brazilian footballing economy, driven by the country’s impressive rate of national growth, fat new club-by-club TV deals, improved marketing nous, and one of the biggest potential footballing customer bases on the planet (both Flamengo and Corinthians boast of having 25 million supporters each). Valued at £543 million, the Brasileirão is now the 6th richest league in the world, according to a recent study by BDO RCS financial consultants. And of course, Brazil, the world’s premier exporter of top players, also has that famous, formidable reservoir of footballing talent.
Half a world away, the Chinese game, currently wracked by a major match fixing scandal, has none of Brazil’s footballing tradition or global cultural punch. What it does have is supporters. The Super League boasted an average of around 17,000 per game last year, not Bundesliga standard, but quite a bit better than average gates in Brazil. And it has money. Lots of money. And money, usually, talks.
The footballing histories and cultures of Brazil, India and China could hardly be less similar. And all will face very different challenges in the future. Yet the three also have things in common. They are all developing countries with rising economies (and, lest the picture appear too rosy, enormous social inequality). And as importantly, in a footballing context, they are all outside in the street, noses pressed up against the window, looking in at the great Champions League feast taking place on the other side of the glass.
The challenges that lie ahead are daunting. Premier League Soccer will need to make a dent in the side of that most fearsome of juggernauts, Indian Premier League cricket. China will need to overcome the whiff of corruption that surrounds the Super League, and find a way to make Chinese television value the local game more highly. Cultural prejudice will need to be overcome – if a regular stream of top young foreign players is one day to be attracted to the Chinese game, the air of mystique that surrounds much of the country´s doings is unlikely to be a big selling point.
Both India and China will need to invest heavily in grass roots football, particularly India, so that local teenagers learn to pick up a football as easily as they today pick up a cricket bat. For no matter how many foreign superstars are imported, the game will only truly take off once local heroes start to roll off the production line. And in India especially, fans will have to be tempted away from their TV sets, and the glitz and thunder of the English Premier League and the other big European championships.
The problems facing the game in Brazil are more subtle. On the surface, as mentioned above, not much is wrong. Underneath, plenty is. The calendar is an unholy mess, cramped by the loveable but unwieldy state championships. Fans are staying away from the game in droves – the Serie A average gate last year was a paltry 14,000, ridiculously low for a country with Brazil`s huge population and footballing tradition. A culture of hot-headed short-termism pervades almost every decision making process, and worst of all, the deadening hand on the tiller of the CBF and Brazilian football belongs to Ricardo Teixeira, a man tainted by a string of corruption scandals, and who is seemingly entirely oblivious to such dreamy concepts as positive change and the common good. If the game in Brazil manages to grow further, it will be despite Teixeira, not because of him. As things stand, despite the glad tidings, this is a league that is still a long way from fulfilling its enormous potential.
But there are reasons to be cheerful, and São Paulo’s capture of Jádson is one. Mr. Rodrigues Da Silva is no Messi or Ronaldo. But he is a quick, creative attacking midfielder, with a punchy shot, and was briefly one of the bright spots of the Seleção‘s dismal 2011 Copa América campaign. Just a few months ago he was tipped for a move to Arsenal, where many saw him fitting in rather well. He is only 28 and is at, or near, the top of his game.
Rewind to three years ago, when the signing of an injured and chronically overweight Ronaldo by Corinthians was seen as a “one giant leap” moment for Brazilian football. And in some ways it was, for it helped begin the process that has led to the talented, and young (-ish), likes of Jádson, Vagner Love, and others like them returning to Brazil.
The timeline of the evolution of Brazilian football is easily traced. Just a few years ago, before all the new found wealth, players would only come back from Europe at the very end of their careers, or if things had gone badly wrong across the water. Most returning émigrés were a little too old, a little too fat, a little too injured, or a little too troubled to still cut it at the top level.
Then the money picked up, and the veterans started coming back a little earlier, when there was still gas in the tank (Roberto Carlos, for example). Middle ranking players such as Réver (Atlético Mineiro) and Maicoseul (Botafogo), who were finding life tough away from Brazil, realised they could make as much, if not more, at home than they could drifting down through the minor European leagues.
Next, young stars such as Neymar, Ganso and Lucas were persuaded to stay in Brazil for longer (the decision of Neymar, with advice from everyone from Pelé to Lula ringing in his ears, to tarry awhile in the Brasileirão and reject Chelsea´s 2010 offer, was a key moment). More big names, such as Luis Fabiano, Liédson (ex-Sporting) and Alex (ex-Spartak Moscow) headed home to join the fun.
Now, while competing on an even footing continues to be a challenge, as most Brazilian clubs remain saddled with frightening debt (Flamengo initially offered to pay Love´s transfer fee to CSKA Moscow in 60 installments) at least today Brasileiros can shop at Waitrose, and not Poundstretcher. That Corinthians can bid for Carlitos Tevez and not be immediately sneered at represents considerable progress.
As their leagues grow, and more Anelkas and Cannavaros are tempted to join the party, India and China will go through a similar process. The situation will be made more difficult still by the fact that, unlike in Brazil, there are few famous émigrés to be brought home, as neither India nor China are yet major exporters of players. The “one last big payday” stigma will hang around for a while yet. But Brazilian football has shown that there might one day be light at the end of this particular tunnel.
To finish, while Brazil has a hundred years or more of footballing culture on which to draw, and the Chinese game seems to possess almost bottomless financial resources, India can claim at least one major advantage over them both. For what it lacks in footballing tradition it gains in being able to start with a clean slate (with apologies to the I-League and others). No foolish errors have been made, no ingrained culture of wrongheaded thinking has been set in stone.
As the player auction shows, the footballing revolution in India can cherry pick the best ideas from the most successful leagues in the world. If done right, there will be no need for the surreal lunacy of the Brazilian football calendar, no reason for the Indian middle classes to timidly shy away from a trip to the football ground, and no match fixing scandals such as those that have riven the Chinese Super League. This may count for a lot. The pleasure of starting over, after all, is a luxury known to few.
By James Armour Young
James blog can be found here