If Diego Costa moves to China this January, it will be a move which changes the face of Chinese football to a worldwide audience, and may even be the catalyst of an even bigger change in world football’s power dynamics.
From the parochial game of the past, football is now a global concern, but there has been no doubt that the pinnacle of the game is in Europe.
Up until now, one major – and probably damning – criticism of Major League Soccer in the United States is the fact that it does attract big name players, but does so after their top class careers have all but finished. Like a pensioner taking a place on a particularly lucrative cruiseship or retirement resort, top players cash in – if not totally on the money, then on the lifestyle the US offers, too.
China has been in a similar position, though some note that going to the US is a draw in terms of lifestyle that China doesn’t have – the way of life in China, they say, is so far removed from what these players are used to in Europe, or could get in America, that the money would have to be spectacular. At the moment, it is.
Yet, even if that’s true (though it shows a stunning lack of imagination to suggest that a multi-millionaire can’t have fun in Shanghai), it might even be of benefit to the league. After all, if top footballers think that playing in China is somehow a bad lifestyle choice then there will surely come a point, financially, where they feel sufficiently compensated for their troubles.
And that probably makes China a more serious attraction to footballers than MLS does. If going to the US is about a golden retirement, moving to China is about making the most of your earning power while you’re still able to do the job.
And if the criticism of the US is that none of the players take it seriously when they’re in their prime, then the same can’t be said for China. Oscar and Ramires have already moved from Chelsea to China, and the likes of Jackson Martinez and Alex Teixeira have already shown that you don’t have to be at the end of your career to want to pitch up in the Chinese Super League.
But Costa would be different. He is not a player who fits the bill of one solely after money. Not in the sense that glory is right under his nose. It might make more sense if he angled for a move in the summer, but to leave in January when you’re playing for the Premier League title favourites is all a little strange. But it shows how serious a proposition China has become.
Football is no longer parochial. TV, sponsorship and advertising money mean that clubs have left local fans in search of newer and more lucrative markets. Social media has also allowed the game to spread into every corner of the globe. It makes loyalty an old fashioned concept.
If the club you are playing for is willing to chase commercial opportunities in the Far East, why shouldn’t the player? If the club is willing to make its local fans pay extortionate prices for tickets whilst bringing their teams on money-making pre-season tours of far-off lands, then why should a player have any loyalty to that club?
When Slaven Bilic is angered by Dimitri Payet, or when Antonio Conte is snubbed by Diego Costa, these managers only have their clubs to blame for creating a culture where chasing the money around the world is OK.
That doesn’t help the fans, though. They are, as always, the ones who suffer. Because not only have they had to watch their clubs bat their eyes at China for the last decade, but now they are also losing their on-the-pitch heroes to these places, too.
If Diego Costa goes, it will add a whole new dimension to the Chinese exodus. Attracting players in their prime is one thing, but attracting a player with a legitimate claim to a Player of the Year tag, currently playing at a club seven points clear in the Premier League is an entirely different story.
But if we’re dismayed that footballers chase money, then we really should be directing our blame at the institutions across European football who created the climate and made all of this possible.