Os­car bound to re­gret quit­ting elite game for Chi­nese riches

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FOOTBALL -

I t is still hard to be­lieve that David Beck­ham left Euro­pean foot­ball for Ma­jor League Soc­cer 10 years ago next sum­mer, aged just 32, and then spent a large part of the next three sea­sons try­ing to ex­tri­cate him­self from the si­t­u­a­tion, with those loans to AC Mi­lan and a hell of a lot of air miles.

Even at the time it felt like an odd de­ci­sion for one so young, and that was be­fore the ca­reer span of the thir­tysome­thing foot­baller was pro­longed by all those clever in­no­va­tions like the march of sports science and pi­lates and not drink­ing 17 pints with Neil Rud­dock on a Satur­day night. The thir­ties be­came a new chap­ter in the lives of our best play­ers rather than just a rapid de­cline, and in fair­ness to Rud­dock he was still earn­ing a liv­ing in the game at West Ham at the age of 31.

Frank Lam­pard won the Premier League and FA Cup Dou­ble at the age of 31 and came back two years later for the Cham­pi­ons League at 33 and then the Europa League at 34. Steven Ger­rard was made Eng­land cap­tain aged 32. Paul Sc­holes won his last Premier League ti­tle at 38. Ryan Giggs won his last at 39.

The last game bar one Beck­ham started in his pro­fes­sional ca­reer was against Barcelona for Paris St-Ger­main in a Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal, and bear­ing in mind he was 38 at the time and play­ing against ar­guably the best team in the world, he more than held his own for 70 min­utes. Those tears at the end of his ca­reer in Paris should have been for all those good years he wasted in the MLS.

Which brings us to Os­car, the lat­est Brazil­ian ex­port to the China Su­per League, who is about to an­nounce his re­tire­ment from elite foot­ball any time soon with a move to Shang­hai SIPG. He will join an­other refugee from the Euro­pean and South Amer­i­can club game, An­dre Villas-Boas, who used to say that he had am­bi­tions to man­age in Brazil one day but has in­stead joined a coun­try wealthy enough to bring Brazil to him.

Os­car is 25 years and three months old. At the same age, his com­pa­triot Kaka, a player to whom the younger man has of­ten been com­pared, was about to win the Cham­pi­ons League with AC Mi­lan and from there the 2007 Bal­lon d’Or. Kaka moved on to Real Madrid at 27 and al­though the in­juries be­came a prob­lem, he can al­ways say that he packed in a lot of the stuff that counts as good mem­o­ries for great foot­ballers.

At Os­car’s age, Ronald­inho had won his first league ti­tle at Barcelona and was 12 months away from his part in the club’s 2006 Cham­pi­ons League vic­tory. At 25 the orig­i­nal Ron­aldo was six months away from win­ning the 2002 World Cup fi­nals and then his move to Real Madrid.

Care­ful not to de­rail a Christ­mas gift of a deal for his club, An­to­nio Conte has ap­pealed to the “pas­sion” of his play­ers to put their com­pet­i­tive spirit above fi­nan­cial gain. There is some­thing a lit­tle rich about the Premier League com­plain­ing about be­ing out­mus­cled fi­nan­cially but even so Conte’s in­stincts are cor­rect. As for Os­car’s thoughts on his im­pend­ing trans­fer, he is yet to say. In the tra­di­tion of all great kid­nap­pings, per­haps his exit state­ment from Chelsea should be spelled out with let­ters cut from the pages of the day’s news­pa­pers. Os­car is Shang­hai SIPG’s re­place­ment for Darío Conca, the Ar­gen­tine who es­tab­lished him­self as one of the high­est paid play­ers in the world in China with­out much of a rep­u­ta­tion

An­other 16-year-old is on his way from Dutch foot­ball to the academy of one of our lead­ing clubs with the prom­ise of a lu­cra­tive con­tract the mo­ment he turns 17: the striker Daishawn Redan, of Ajax, a Hol­land Un­der-17s in­ter­na­tional who is head­ing to Manch­ester United.

He may yet turn out to be United’s wis­est in­vest­ment of the year but, like Tahith Chong, the teenager who joined United from Feyeno­ord last sum­mer, there is only one rea­son that Premier League clubs con­tinue be­yond South Amer­ica. Yet Conca, out with a cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in­jury, left Brazil at the age of only 28. Os­car is go­ing to China younger than any of the pre­vi­ous Brazil in­ter­na­tional ex­ports in­clud­ing Hulk, Ramires and Paulinho and even Alex Teix­eira, who has still not been capped.

Os­car has 48 caps, and while a move to China no longer rep­re­sents the end of a Brazil in­ter­na­tional ca­reer, it is hard to know ex­actly what it does rep­re­sent, other than se­ri­ous amounts of yuan. The re­al­ity is that Os­car is leav­ing be­hind a Euro­pean club game that, for bet­ter or worse, has at­tracted the world’s best play­ers since the 1950s and that is a very strange in­stinct for any foot­baller still at their peak.

In a coun­try where the na­tional trans­fer record has been bro­ken five times this year, in­clud­ing twice by Shang­hai SIPG, the story of the rise of foot­ball in China seems pri­mar­ily to be about the ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of money be­ing spent. The China na­tional team are bot­tom of their 2018 World Cup qual­i­fy­ing group, be­hind even Syria, who have more press­ing con­cerns.

There is no mar­ket in Europe for Os­car at a fee of £60 mil­lion and Chelsea might even have ac­cepted half that for a man who has not started a league game since Sept 16. The fee does not make any sense other than that it may be just more of the shock and awe tac­tics that Chi­nese foot­ball has em­ployed to per­suade oth­ers to take no­tice.

As for the player him­self, he can buy all the solid gold top hats he wants on the Shang­hai wages be­ing quoted but that has never seemed like the pri­or­ity for this quiet, el­e­gant foot­baller. What char­ac­terises play­ers such as him is the com­pet­i­tive in­stinct to suc­ceed and it has pro­pelled him a long way, but can he be sure he will still be able to sum­mon it in China, a long way from the best leagues and the best foot­ballers in the world game? You have to be tough as well as bril­liant to emerge as a player from the great­est foot­ball na­tion on earth and you might even say, given the depth of the Brazil tal­ent pool, that 48 caps counts as dou­ble the same num­ber for lesser na­tions. Os­car still has a lot to give in Euro­pean foot­ball, in­clud­ing the Premier League, and it feels like he is a bats­man who has de­clared un­ex­pect­edly on an un­beaten score, strid­ing across the bound­ary to­wards a gold-plated pavil­ion.

At the same age, Kaka was about to win the Euro­pean Cup and Bal­lon d’Or

with this poach­ing. That is to save money in case these boys turn into the kind of es­tab­lished stars that the Dutch game ex­ports at a much higher cost.

If they could not af­ford it, Premier League clubs would not do it but their vast wealth al­lows them to take punts on more young prospects than they ever did be­fore. Whether it is good in the long term for the player, or in­deed the club he leaves, or those young play­ers at his new club, is not so clear.

Ori­en­tal trade: Os­car is ex­pected to com­mand a fee of £60 mil­lion from Shang­hai SIPG when he leaves Stam­ford Bridge in the Jan­uary win­dow

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