Just not in quite the same way.
So far, Oscar’s £60m switch from Chelsea to the Chinese Super League has consumed this season’s January transfer window. This is mostly because of its potential impact on the European game as it signals the real emergence of football in China.
Its significance can’t be dismissed – a marquee signing in the prime of their career speaks volumes.
It is exactly what MLS is missing. Just not in quite the same way.
So what is it about China?
Oscar – while a more and more peripheral figure at Chelsea – could certainly still have made a career in the Premier league, yet decided to spend the best years of it playing a much inferior standard.
And it is for this reason critics say Oscar’s motive – at age 25 – is a monetary one (apparently he is set to make somewhere near the half a million a week region).
But the move is part of China’s ambition (or more accurately, as a football fanatic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition): to be a footballing superpower by 2050.
Money is their tool. And there is no limit to it.
Jackson Martinez left Atletico Madrid for it, Ramires left Chelsea for it, Alex Teixeira left Shakhtar Donetsk for it, Hulk left Zenit Saint Petersburg for it, Paulinho left Tottenham for it, Graziano Pelle left Southampton for it. Fabio Cannavaro, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari manage out there for it. And now, Tevez and Edinson Cavani are being linked because of it.
As Oscar’s move proves the fifth time this year the Chinese transfer record has been broken, the likelihood is this mega-move won’t be the last.
Money might not be to blame.
But it does change things.
And the Premier League, more than most, knows it is unrealistic to suggest it would have succeeded without it.
Money brought about its change.
As The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor referenced: Juninho’s transfer to Middlesbrough in the 1990s shaped English football. But he came for the money.
And as Joe.co.uk’s Dion Fanning made clear: the idea in the 1990’s that the World’s best players would consider Chelsea as the destination to further their careers would have been dismissed, but by 2003, Chelsea had the financial power to make that a reality. Soon after, success followed and then nothing else really mattered.
The Premier League had tradition and history, but it used money to achieve the status it has today.
And this is China’s moment.
A lot of commentary centres on this being a ‘moment’; a ‘moment’ heralding China’s reckoning in football.
The proof of concept began in 2011. A model which started when Guangzhou Evergrande paid €10m to sign the reigning Brazilian Player of the Year, Dario Conca from Fluminense and made him (reportedly) the third-highest paid player in world football. He helped the club to promotion into the Chinese Super League in his first season, kick starting a run that established Evergrande as China’s dominant force.
Now, the country’s enormously wealthy property-developers-come-club-owners are seeking to play their role in delivering the President’s desire for China to become a power in the world game.
While they may not have history or tradition like the Premier League, it is blinkered thinking to believe distance and cultural differences can halt China’s potential to shift an entire league of Europe to China.
Should the Premier League be worried?
A few years ago, backed by Toyota, big-name signings on inflated salaries became the hallmark of Japan’s J.League, but then the countries desire cooled. In China, there’s a strong political desire behind their expansion into football with no sign of cooling.
Right now, China lacks standard and quality, but the more that good players favour money as compensation, the more standard and quality improves. All of a sudden other good players want to join the fold, and now the offer is less about the money. Better players up the TV ratings. The TV ratings bring in more money. That money is used to attract better players. And so on. That is the reality.
China has jumped straight into this reality with money already in hand.
No doubt any top player in the world right now would be made welcome in the Chinese Super League, and while a lot of them may resist the financial incentives which come with little satisfaction to waste the best years of their careers in China, some wouldn’t.
And because of that, the Premier League should worry.
So where does that leave MLS?
At this moment, the Chinese league is not a league you want to play in. The only way to get players there is the money.
MLS is different. Players are going there to be part of something – the lifestyle, the energy and culture of a improving football community.
Still a relatively young league, their agenda has always been to cement itself into the footballing mainstream – they want to be a top-world league by 2022 – and in just over two decades of trying, they are starting to reap their recognition.
But they still don’t have a megastar in the prime of their career. And they don’t have the money of the Chinese.
The tipping point?
That 25 year old in their prime. An Oscar.
But most importantly, one who wants to come for the football.
They currently have young stars like Giovani dos Santos and Sebastian Giovinci as validation of a growing reputation, but they are not world class standard.
And they are churning out impressive homegrown talent such as Jordan Morris (who resisted the Bundesliga and Werder Bremen to remain in MLS, and win the 2016 Rookie of the Year), but at the same time, another homegrown talent, 18 year-old wunderkid Christian Pulisic chose to make waves in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund rather than MLS.
Their big problem is trying to shake their reputation as a retirement league.
That’s not to take anything away from the success they have had in drawing note-worthy talent to the league over the last few years: Kaka, Villa, Pirlo, Drogba, Gerrard, Lampard, Henry.
But what matters – and what makes the difference – are those players choosing to ply their trade in the States at the height of their careers, not the end of it.
Any league needs good players like good players need the league
It may be generations before MLS reaches the quality of the Premier League and La Liga, but they are becoming part of the global football conversation organically: attracting great players and producing better ones.
This could be argued as the right way to do it. But MLS doesn’t have the money to do it the same way as the Chinese anyway.
What is happening in China will play its part in helping to change the perception of the league. But the route they are taking is through the back door.
While it is probably widely accepted that one day, they will catch up with the rest, there is a difference in those approaches…
At the same time as China is flirting with the Tevez’s and Cavani’s, the 3rd-placed finisher in the 2016 Ballon d’Or, Antoine Griezman, off the back of back-to-back 22-goal seasons in La Liga with Atletico Madrid is flirting with his own ambitions of playing in MLS. Still only 25, although signed with Athletico Madrid through to 2021, he declared David Beckham’s Miami franchise as his future destination.
This is the right way to do it. Players attracted for the football and the culture supporting it.
MLS is a league on the up – increasing attendance numbers, academy growth, rising popularity of soccer among young people given changing demographics in the US – but they are still lacking the holy grail: getting a Griezman, a Hazard, a Sanchez, a Coutinho – in their prime. That is when they are really beginning to ‘make it’.