China Is Latest Destination for Brazilian Stars
China Is Latest Destination for Brazilian Stars
In this country’s top soccer league, the Brasileirão, team officials are used to the phone calls. They expect them. Agents and executives, middlemen and managers, all of them looking to make a deal in the game’s greatest shopping mall.
But where once the interest regularly came from Madrid or Milan, these days the voice on the other end of the line, teams say, is more likely to be calling from Beijing or Shanghai. And increasingly, the Chinese suitors are looking to buy only the best.
Last year, teams from China’s Super League bought the rights to perhaps the Brasileirão’s two best players. Last month, Chinese clubs plucked four key players from the reigning champion, Corinthians, and a top striker from São Paulo.
“Brazil needs to learn to live with this,” said Thiago Scuro, the sporting director of Cruzeiro, which won the Brazilian championship in 2013 and 2014. “We were always a target, but what’s changed is the big clubs in Europe are taking very young players, to have time to develop them there. But China is signing the star players in their 20s.
Brazil has always been a net exporter of soccer talent; no country sends more professional players abroad. But Brazil’s slumping economy and the chronic financial problems plaguing domestic clubs — it is not uncommon for players to go unpaid for months — have some regarding China’s current shopping spree as a worrisome asset-stripping of the Brazilian game.
The tale of Corinthians is the latest example. Corinthians dominated last season, finishing first by 12 points, and the feeling was a South American title and a return to a World Club Cup was a possibility this year. But that was before the team lost eight players.The four highest transfer fees came from China, for a combined $24.5 million. Renato Augusto and Ralf moved to Beijing Guoan; center back Gil (who is making inroads into the national team) joined Shandong Luneng Taishan; and midfielder Jádson headed to the second-division team Tianjin Quanjian. (Tianjin also snapped up 23-year-old Santos star Geuvânio for $12 million.)
“It’s not a surprise to lose players when you are champions, but the big surprise was they went to China,” said Edu, who starred in Europe with Arsenal and Valencia during his playing days and is now Corinthians’ sporting director. “It’s not so frustrating. It’s the market. You just have to replace them.”
Yet Chinese soccer’s taste for Brazilians shows no sign of slowing. Last week, Chelsea accepted a $35 million offer for the Brazilian midfielder Ramires from Jiangsu Suning, which had earlier made a failed bid for the Milan striker Luiz Adriano. Moves like those, and the bulk acquisitions of younger players from Brazilian clubs, have soccer officials here concerned about what the money-driven deals could one day mean for the future of Brazil’s national team. Ramires, 28, was a starter at the last World Cup, and while he had fallen out of favor recently, exports like Gil, 28, and Augusto, 27, were thought by some to be part of the national team’s future after their recent resurgence at Corinthians.
“With the crisis here, the prices they are offering, we can’t compete with that,” Edu said of the recent sales. “But in terms of a player’s career, they are going for money, not the status, and for me, that would have made me think twice, as it could get in the way of playing for Brazil.”
Chinese clubs might not release players for national team play except in the mandatory official windows, Edu said, adding: “It’s a personal decision, but you need to balance it. And if you’re good enough and have the chance to play for Brazil, nothing should get in the way.”
In one sense, the China conundrum is nothing new. But the earlier Brazilian star Júnior Baiano was already 31 when he went to Shanghai in 2001, and of the 134 reported moves of Brazilians to China from 2003 to 2010, almost all were players from minor clubs.
But last year the Brasileirão’s two best players — both of them having broken into the national team — made the switch. One, Diego Tardelli, had just won the Brazilian Cup with Atlético Mineiro. The other, Ricardo Goulart, had just won back-to back league championships with Cruzeiro. And the money is only getting better: The onetime Sevilla striker Luís Fabiano left São Paulo for China last month for a reported $7 million a year.
Guangzhou Evergrande could be described as the team that changed the market in 2011, when it signed the Argentine midfielder Darío Conca from the Rio de Janeiro club Fluminense and made him, at the time, the third-highest-paid player in the world behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Guangzhou’s investments quickly paid off: It has won five straight Chinese Super League titles, and its average attendance is nearly 46,000 a game. Last summer, the team hired Brazil’s former World Cup manager Luiz Felipe Scolari; he quickly delivered Guangzhou’s second Asian Champions League title in three years.
“From originally being a real estate company, their owners saw what football could achieve in terms of strengthening their brand, and they’ve now gone into other areas like entertainment and bottled water and cooking oil,” Christopher Atkins, a player agent in China, said. “Other clubs have seen, too, the political and marketing gains that can be made by representing a certain city or province with a successful team. People talked about China next up being a steppingstone league, but they’ve just skipped that phase.”
From the Chinese end, the equation is simple. Merely being associated with Brazilian soccer buys a superficial legitimacy as China ponders making a bid to host the World Cup. For Brazilian pros, it’s more complicated. Off the record, some players talked about safety as a factor in their decision to entertain offers from China; research released last month showed 21 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities were in Brazil. And the pull is not simply huge contracts, but clubs that actually honor them.