Hard to blame Tevez and Oscar when they may even get face on Chinese stamp

English football’s glittering era may one day be seen as nothing more than fleeting marvel

Travel well, Mikel, who has become the very latest Premier League footballer to use the January transfer window to make the metamorphosis from Premier League everyman to Chinese Super League deity-in-waiting.

In bidding a lengthy farewell to his Chelsea fans via a Twitter posting, Mikel reasonably pointed out that he isn’t getting a lot of playing minutes at Stamford Bridge. Not so long ago, players among the elite English clubs languishing in the shadows of the first team instructed their agents to feel out the wage possibilities and nightclub potential of a slightly lesser star – a Middlesbrough or a Watford, say. But who can blame footballers for going East?

Mikel's former team-mate Oscar, who has also struggled to persuade Chelsea manager Antonio Conte of his First XI credentials, highlighted the financial clout of the Chinese League by agreeing terms with Shanghai SIPG for £350,000(€408,000) per week – after tax.

Axel Witsel, the elegant Belgian midfielder who moved like a hot knife through butter against Ireland in the Euros this summer, just days ago explained his dilemma in deciding to move to Tianjin Quanjian rather than join European blue bloods Juventus. The decision was simple: the €20 million salary offered to him by the newly promoted club managed by former Juve terrace hero Fabio Cannavaro will leave him and his family with no financial concerns.


The romantic appeal of joining one of the most storied clubs in world football could not, in the end, supersede the truth for Witsel: he is a 27-year-old professional footballer and this may be the best deal he will ever get.

The magnetic pull of the Chinese league was made clear just before new year by the jaw-dropping £615,000 (€717,000) per week deal struck with Carlos Tevez, who has swapped his boyhood club, Boca Juniors, for Shanghai Shenhua. That fee – making Tevez , now 32, the best paid footballer on earth – and the quick defection of two squad players has prompted Conte to declare that the financial muscle within the Chinese market is "a danger for all".

But does Conte wonder why Pep Guardiola is up in rainy Manchester or why Zlatan Ibrahimovic was inspired to join the ranks of Mancs. For a full decade, no other league could compete with the financial clout – combined with the deep-rooted traditions – of English football. But that couldn’t last forever.

Before Christmas, a few tentative headlines suggested that Stoke City were targeting Witsel, a link which seems innocent given Witsel's new circumstances. Already, Arsenal fans fear that the club will not be able to retain the services of Alexis Sánchez, while Liverpool fans look at the wizardry of Philippe Coutinho and wonder for how long more he will stay.

It’s hardly a new pattern, in any sport.

High-rise tower blocks

The Last Shot by Darcy Frey is one of the least heralded classic sports books and chronicles the strange, 1990s dual adolescence of Stephon Marbury, who lived by day in the high-rise tower blocks which day-trippers to Coney Island can still see from the passing F train and was by evening feted courtside by Patrick Ewing and other New York Knicks luminaries.

It didn't exactly go wrong for Marbury: he made the leap straight from one year at Georgia Tech to the NBA and after a few turns on the carousel found himself playing point guard for the Knicks. And he made serious bank. But he was among the NBA players on the USA team which flamed out spectacularly at the Athens Olympics, during which he openly feuded with Larry Brown, who, inevitably, happened to be head coach at the Knicks when Marbury returned to New York two seasons later.

It was in his home city that it truly soured and when he left the NBA out of friends and reputation, he took the one option open to him: China. That was seven years ago. Marbury arrived to play with the Beijing Ducks and discovered a city base ready to love him.

This year, he has just received his Chinese green card. His face is on a Chinese postage stamp. He had a statue unveiled in his honour. There is a Marbury museum in Beijing. Marbury was never anybody’s fool and was ahead of the posse in understanding that even within elite team sports, the individual held the commercial muscle.

“I can play basketball and build my brand.” And he did just that, with spectacular success. The price – the remote possibility of finishing his career with an NBA ring – is one he has been happy to pay.

In the years since then, the idea of player-as-brand has taken a grip in football, too. The entire illusion of following any professional sports club is based on the fans pretending to themselves that the players wearing the shirts love the club as much as they do. But it is, of course, a wilful delusion.

Recall the electrifying joy which surged through the red quarters of Liverpool in 2013-14 when Luis Suárez threatened to win the Premier League single-handedly. And the crushing disappointment when he suddenly and inevitably re-appeared in the colours of Barça the following season.

Of course, leaving an English club for a home in Spain or Italy was understandable. Can a Chinese league medal possibly mean as much to Oscar as the Premier League medal he might well have won had he seen this season out with Chelsea? Hardly.

But winning trophies and medals is the obligation of the handful of managers on the carousel to lead the best clubs.

Circus masters

And they, too, follow the money. Deep down, Conte and company know they are simply the circus masters in a global entertainment and that the real powerbrokers now are the transfer agents; men like Kia Joorabchian, who has handled Tevez's extraordinarily lucrative path for over decade, or Pere Guardiola, agent to Suárez and brother to Pep. These are the people with the endgame say in where the few dozen elite franchise players in world football end up. And now China has entered the bidding with a new reserve of funds.

If there is something cold and engineered about China’s sudden and state-sponsored love for the beautiful game; about its ambition to place football at the heart of its programme to build the world’s biggest sports economy; if it seems wrong that a country in which it was impossible to set up a football club because of the restrictions on 10 or more people gathering should just decide to dominate the game, then it is also irreversible.

In England, football was built from the bottom-up. The key appeal of the Premier League, underneath the rush of cash and big-name player and coaching imports, surely lies in the tradition and identity built up over a full century.

Maybe right now is the dream-time for English football. It is light years removed from the hooligan-scourged and broken version of the game which was regarded as a blight on society in the 1980s. It is one of the most commercially successful sports leagues in the world.

The Chinese are among its most ardent admirers, which is why pre-season tours of Asia have long been part of the itinerary for England’s bigger clubs. In China, the drive is on to build the game from the top down: to buy a league and import the best players and then start producing domestic players capable of competing on the world stage.

The drift to the East has begun and this glittering period for the English football league, crowded with the elite stars, may someday be regarded as a fleeting marvel: as the seasons in which they never had it so good.