Why are so many Brazilian players heading to the Chinese Super League?
In a recent column for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, the Chinese ambassador to Brazil, Li Jinzhang, trumpeted the success of economic relations between the two countries and said they could become the "ideal for cooperation and progress" for others to follow. Yet while the Chinese economy continues to expand, growth in Brazil has stalled in recent years.
For Brazilian fans, the footballing balance of power between the two countries must have a similarly lopsided feel at the moment. Arguably the two best players in the country last season, Diego Tardelli of Atlético-MG and Ricardo Goulart of Cruzeiro, have signed for Chinese Super League clubs Shandong Luneng and Guangzhou Evergrande, respectively.
The fact that two of the stars of the Brasileirão could abandon the local game, not for the bright lights of the Champions League but for a supposedly inferior league, sparked some scorn among the Brazilian football community and media. "Ricardo Goulart, the biggest mercenary in Brazil," ran the headline of one article, before describing the player's new club as "irrelevant."
There are certainly reasons to question Goulart's decision. Unlike the much-travelled Tardelli, whose 30th birthday is fast approaching, the former Cruzeiro player is just 23. After finishing the season as title winner and one of Brazilian Serie A's top goal scorers, he recently earned a call-up to the Brazil squad. The best days of his career, one would hope, still lie ahead.
On the surface, it is easy to slam Goulart and Tardelli as money-grabbers, willing to drop off the map in return for a large payday (the latter will reportedly earn around three million pounds a year after tax at his new club). However, a closer look at the reasons behind the moves is telling as to the current state of the Brazilian game, as well as the growing strength (financial and otherwise) of the Chinese Super League, as set out below.
1. Interest in Brazilian players cooling among Europe's top clubs
The cold reality is that no major European club was willing to invest significantly in the current best Brazil has to offer. The talent isn't there to entice big teams. The potential move of Goulart's Cruzeiro teammate, Lucas Silva, to Real Madrid aside, there has been little talk of major deals for the Brasileirão's top talent this off-season.
Had Goulart insisted on a move to a more established football destination, his likely options would have been Portugal, Russia or perhaps one of the smaller clubs in Italy. Yet those clubs would likely not have been willing to match the 11.5-million-pound transfer fee (a record for Chinese football) that Guangzhou Evergrande paid. It all feels like a far cry from the days when Barcelona and Real Madrid went head-to-head over Neymar (Barca paid a report 57 million euros) or when Paris Saint-Germain spent a king's ransom (45 million euros) on Lucas Moura.
Not that China's two latest imports are exactly trailblazers. Broadly speaking, Brazilian players have been intrigued by the riches, if not always the footballing pleasures, on offer in the world's second biggest economy for quite some time.
Early pioneers were usually reaching the veteran stage, such as former Seleção central defender Junior Baiano, who moved to Shanghai Shenua in 2001. Interestingly, most of those exports came from lower division clubs such as striker Gilcimar, who played for a number of smaller Brazilian clubs before spending six months with Liaoning Whowin in 2010.
Of the 134 players that moved to China between 2003 and 2010, the CBF (the Brazilian FA) showed that almost all were from minor Brazilian teams. Things began to change in 2010, when Guangzhou Evergrande signed promising striker Muriqui from Atlético-MG for 2.3 million pounds.
Not long after that, established Brasileirão stars such as former Flamengo striker Obina and Fluminense's Argentinian midfielder Dario Conca made the move; the latter's salary at Guangzhou Evergrande reportedly made him the third highest paid player in the world at the time, trailing only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
In recent years, high-profile Brazilian and Brazil-based players such as Argentinian midfielder Walter Montillo, Vagner Love (who moved from CSKA Moscow to Shandong Luneng in 2013) and attacking midfielder Elkeson (elected the best player in last year's Super League) have joined Chinese clubs. In total, one-third of the Super League's 66 current foreign players are Brazilian; also, Tardelli's manager at Shandong Luneng will be Cuca, under whom the player won the Copa Libertadores with Atlético in 2013.
2. Brazilian football's financial woes
Given the lengthy history of Chinese clubs signing up Brazilian talent, it is surprising that the departures of Goulart and Tardelli were accompanied by quite so much angst back home. After all, the players' decisions were effectively governed by the same push and pull factors that drive any kind of emigration.
Looking at it from the other end, the determination of Chinese clubs to buy Brazilian has undoubtedly been given a large boost by the financial chaos back home. The Chinese Super League was created in 2004 and clubs are backed by large corporations such as online retailer Alibaba (Guangzhou Evergrande) and utility company State Grid (Shandong Luneng). It is now the ninth biggest in the world when it comes to spending on players. Meanwhile, clubs in Brazil exist in a seemingly endless financial maelstrom.
Many teams, including Tardelli's former employers Atlético-MG, have struggled to pay salaries on time in recent seasons. A number of high-profile players at one of the country's most storied outfits, Santos, have recently rescinded their contracts over unpaid wages. Following the loss of their biggest sponsor and financial backer, healthcare group Unimed, Fluminense seem certain to soon say goodbye to their biggest stars, including Brazil's World Cup striker Fred. Corinthians, one of the country's biggest clubs, have also admitted problems in paying wages and have been unable to invest heavily in new signings.
As a result, the size of a player's salary might not be the only deciding factor involved for players to want to move elsewhere.
"I had no reason to complain. The infrastructure at the clubs would put Brazilian football to shame, and they do everything just as was agreed: when they will pay wages and other benefits, for example," Gilcimar told a Brazilian website in 2011.
3. Chinese Super League is improving, slowly but surely
Then there are crowds. Brazilian clubs play in front of banks of empty seats at home, where the average Serie A crowd was just over 16,500 in 2014. The average attendance in last season's top flight in the CSL was almost 19,000; Guangzhou Evergrande's average gate of 42,000 dwarfed that of Goulart's Cruzeiro, who attracted less than 30,000 per game despite winning the league title.
Any supposed gulf in class between the Brasileirão and the Chinese Super League may also be overstated. Guangzhou-based sportswriter Christopher Atkins, a close follower of both leagues, believes that there is no real gap.
"The leading three or four clubs in China would hold their own in the Brazilian league, as evidenced by Guangzhou Evergrande's performance against Atlético Mineiro at the 2013 Club World Cup," Atkins notes. "The Brazilians were largely outplayed on the day and succeeded thanks to individual moments of quality, combined with the Chinese side's naivety."
Atkins also points out that the Brazilian players, many of whom are attackers or creative midfielders, often fill a specific need in the Chinese game.
"Stylistically, clubs in China often tend to rely on their four non-Asian players for creativity. The Brazilians who move to the country are used to football that is reliant on players who can produce individual moments of quality."
In recent years the popularity of buying from Chinese online retailers has soared among Brazilian shoppers, who are fed-up with paying high prices at home. In football, however, things seem to be moving the other way. Unless Brazilian teams get their act together soon (and there are precious few signs that they will), the trend of "Buying Brazilian" among Chinese clubs will only continue to grow.
James Young writes about Brazil and its football. His collection of short stories and blog writings, "A Beer Before Lunch," is available on Amazon.