Chinese football’s new superstars playing moneyball as trust in sport begins to waver
“This could be the year that sport starts to die” ran a recent headline in The Spectator magazine. Below it, author Simon Barnes claims “sport depends for its existence on a willing suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t work unless you [the consumer/supporter] set aside your knowledge that it is an entirely trivial pursuit.” And for that, you need to trust the motives of those involved. “You have to believe the athletes dedicate every moment of their lives to bring us the joys of partisanship, drama and the wild pursuit of excellence.”
Barnes argues that trust in sport is being shaken like never before, with the governing bodies of football (Fifa) and athletics (IAAF) battered by corruption allegations and cyclists and now tennis players being accused of cheating. He suggests sport is being killed by the pursuit of riches, using India’s dictates in the cricketing world as an example of how fixtures and the very structure of competitions are becoming beholden to the bottom line.
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“Money is not the root of all evil in sport. The evil enters when you decide that money is more important than anything else,” writes Barnes.
Soon after that article was published, Chinese football teams broke the record for the amount of money spent on a player by an Asian club three times in 10 days, with Jiangsu Suning paying 28 million euros (HK$243 million) for Chelsea’s Ramires, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao buying Jackson Martinez for 42 million euros from Atletico Madrid and Suning again stunning the world of sport, with the 50 million euro purchase of Alex Teixeira, from Shakhtar Donetsk.
You can’t blame the buying clubs for their ambition, the fans for their excitement or the selling teams for cashing in, but what on earth are these players (or perhaps their agents) thinking? The Chinese league may one day be the best in the world, but even the staunchest Evergrande supporter would agree that is not yet the case. These players are first rate and still in their prime – you could perhaps understand it if they were seeking one last pay-out before they retired – and must surely be in China primarily for the money (it’s been reported that Teixeira will earn 10 million euros for each year of his four-year deal).
Perhaps I’m being unkind, and these men will use their new-found wealth to better the lot of the disadvantaged in their native South America, but if they are willingly turning their back on the keenest of competition just to boost their fortunes – none of them would ever have gone hungry if they’d remained in Europe for a little longer – then it appears to be yet one more nail in the coffin of trust in sport and sporting figures.
Fortunately, I suppose, with the Hong Kong powers-that-be not giving a flying puck about sport, we can be reasonably certain our own competitors are in it for the right reasons.