Oscar bound to regret quitting elite game for Chinese riches
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