Wayne Rooney and Andres Iniesta shining at DC United and Vissel Kobe shows where Chinese Super League needs to look
The temples are greyed and the hairlines are as distant as their debuts for Europe’s elite but Wayne Rooney and Andres Iniesta have shown no signs of slowing down since heading off into the sunset.
This summer England and Manchester United’s record scorer moved to Major League Soccer’s DC United while Iniesta made for J.League side Vissel Kobe after two decades of winning trophies with Barcelona and Spain.
They were moves that were dismissed and derided, “retirement leagues” and “one last payday” came up again and again, but the players have not stuck to the script.
Since Rooney made his debut for the worst team in the MLS against the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 15, the team’s fortunes have improved dramatically – unbeaten in five games, winning four of them.
One of those was a 3-2 thriller against Orlando City that showed Rooney at his most, well, Rooney.
You’ll have seen it. Everyone has.
Bienvenido a J-league ! pic.twitter.com/FtXtG12GUW
— 高橋陽一 Yoichi TAKAHASHI (@0728takahashi) 28 May 2018
Rooney’s cartoonish exploits went viral, his mixture of Captain Tsubasa and Roy of the Rovers combining to give the MLS a taste of the teenage tyro that tormented the English Premier League over a decade ago.
With the number nine on his back and the captain’s armband on his sleeve, he has carried on this form, netting twice in a win over the Portland Timbers to be named the most recent MLS Player of the Week.
Across the Pacific, Andres Iniesta has settled as silkily into his new life in Japan.
Much like Rooney, he has been given a role further forward and his exploits have been the toast of the internet – his first goal trademark Iniesta while his second was a rare outside of the box strike that showed he has more to give even in his dotage.
Today is a very special day, after all these years and so many great moments together we meet again in Japan. So happy to see you again, my friend, I wish you all the best, @Torres! pic.twitter.com/VekHFQIzVw
— Andrés Iniesta (@andresiniesta8) 22 August 2018
Since Iniesta made his debut on July 22 his team are unbeaten in the four games he has started, winning three of them.
The Chinese Super League is competing with both the J.League and the MLS – and both players rejected moves to CSL sides.
Iniesta’s courtship by Chongqing Lifan was public and pre-teen, going from a love-in to denying any interest and then almost sulking when it failed to come off.
Rooney has been linked with the CSL since he was still first choice at Manchester United and had offers on the table when he left Old Trafford for boyhood club Everton last summer. At the time he told the BBC, why he rejected a move to China over staying in the Premier League.
“That’s just not me. I need those goals, I need that pressure. That desire to play would have been lost if I’d chosen that other option.”
It’s not been lost in the US as the footage has proven – just as they have pointed out another example of where the CSL is falling behind its rivals.
— NYT Sports (@NYTSports) 24 August 2018
The packaging of the Iniesta and Rooney highlights has been slick and immediate.
CSL coverage getting on to western social media is nowhere near as quick and never as polished.
The difference between a camera view in a football specific stadium and one with a running track is vast, never mind that Chinese stands are often empty.
The star quality of the players has been used too.
Over 2.5 million people watched Rooney’s last-minute, lung-busting effort against Orlando on his Instagram alone, while Iniesta has been constantly updating his almost 25 million Instagram followers of his time in Japan.
In the CSL, Oscar has 5.5 million Instagram followers, more than Hulk or Iniesta’s former Barcelona teammates Paulinho and Javier Mascherano.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) 21 August 2018
There is just no name as big as Rooney or Iniesta in China, whereas there were three World Cup winners in the squads for Vissel Kobe’s most recent game, an Emperor’s Cup tie against Sagan Tosu. The Spaniard was reunited with former national teammate Fernando Torres, while ex-Germany striker Lukas Podolski is his new Kobe clubmate.
But even if there were, you’d be safe to assume they would not make the most of it.
Rooney’s shirts have sold out online. It’s a marked difference from China where not every club even sells official merchandise.
This is not something you can fix just by throwing money at it – throwing money at the problem gets you Carlos Tevez – instead the clubs, the league and the foreign signings need to be on board.
— Lukas-Podolski.com (@Podolski10) 20 August 2018
The J.League making an exception for Iniesta to take his teammates number eight shirt is a prime example of them knowing what they have, while Rooney doing so much media shows he understands his role as the team’s, if not the Eastern Conference’s, biggest name.
It’s not about the football.
Paulinho’s stint at Barcelona and Axel Witsel going to Borussia Dortmund have proven that the CSL is no place for retiring but the league needs to stop being so shy.
The only way for Chinese football to grow is to emulate the global profile of the MLS and J.League.