There is an obvious answer to the question of why top footballers would move to China.
Sports people are no different from the rest of us in that, when offered a job that greatly increases their salary and standard of living, they will find it tricky to turn down. And in the Chinese Super League, pumped full of cash and ambition, even the most humdrum of footballers can greatly increase their salary.
After Graziano Pellè’s move from Southampton to Shandong Luneng was completed this week, he will be, depending on whom one believes, anything from the third to the 10th best-paid player in the world. Reports indicate he will earn £34m over the course of two and a half years, breaking down to something like £260,000 a week.
That sort of money can set a person up for life, so it is hardly surprising Pellè jumped at the chance and also it is really none of our business to judge a player for making a move based on finance.
And yet, there is something different here. Broadly, players who have departed for China in recent years fell into two categories: older players, past their prime and after a last fat cheque to milk a short career for all it was worth, and players who had recognisable names but whose performances did not match that standing. So in the former category are Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Yakubu Aiyegbeni; in the latter Demba Ba, Paulinho and Obafemi Martins. There are exceptions but what those two groups have in common is that they generally did not have the option of a move “up” in the footballing hierarchy.
What is different and interesting about Pellè is that he is perhaps the first player with what one might call “leverage” to leave England for China. On the back of another solid season for Southampton, Pellè had an excellent European Championship with Italy, scoring late clinching goals against Spain and Belgium as Antonio Conte’s side made their unlikely way to the quarter-finals.
Even considering his missed penalty in the shootout against Germany, if he wanted to leave Southampton (and reports indicate the club were unwilling to offer him a new contract) he could have parlayed that success into what would traditionally be regarded as a big move. From the new Cruyff-turning hero of the Valleys, Hal Robson-Kanu, to Iceland’s defensive rock Ragnar Sigurdsson, many players will use their showing in France to further their club careers in a more conventional manner.
Pellè is not exactly in the prime of his career (he will be 31 on Friday – happy birthday Graziano!), but in Pellè’s case his age, as many people leaving their youth behind say, is just a number. Pellè was a relatively late-bloomer. He was regarded as something of a punchline back home having reached double-figures only once in nine seasons before joining Feyenoord in 2012. Since then he has scored 85 goals in 147 Eredivisie and Premier League appearances. He also made his international debut at the age of 29 and has scored a very respectable seven times in 17 games for Italy. In some respects Pellè’s career is only just beginning.
This presents arguments for both sides: at what is an advanced age for a footballer, Pellè could argue that he must squeeze as much money as possible from the few years he has remaining or he could equally think this is his last chance to win something prestigious, having been a journeyman for much of his career. It is a glory v money argument but also a risk v security one: should he chase trophies and acclaim he might not get them but, if he takes the money, then to paraphrase Forrest Gump that’s one less thing to worry about, for eternity.
Perhaps anyone who doubts him is merely adhering to a Eurocentric approach of judging football, the unshakable idea that the big leagues on this continent are the only serious places to play the game. Perhaps Pellè truly does believe in the Chinese Super League project, that this is the future of the game and he is among the pioneers. Still, one would have a tough job arguing to anyone that the main motivation for this move is anything other than money.
Part of the objection to players moving purely for financial reasons rests on the notion that there is such a thing as “enough” money: how much does one man need? Of course, to those not earning six figures each week it might look like greed but in this case the figures are so astronomical as to be almost beyond our comprehension. In any case a conservative estimate would suggest that, with this move, Pellè is at least quadrupling his wage and, when put like that, it hardly matters if he was previously earning £80,000 a week or £8 an hour: the chances are that most people, offered a 225% pay rise, will take it.
Anyone judging Pellè should perhaps wonder what they would do when offered £34m for 30 months’ work but there will always be doubts at the back of his mind. What, for example, would he think if Italy won the World Cup in Russia but, because he plays in China, he was not picked for the squad? What might he think should Southampton, however unlikely this might be, emulate Leicester in the coming season?
Pellè is gaining plenty but he is potentially giving up quite a lot too. After missing in Italy’s penalty shootout defeat, Pellè said: “If I had scored, I’d have become a phenomenon but instead … I arrived here as a nobody and I leave as a nobody.” From that, he seems to be a man who believes in the romantic ideals of football, making his move all the more interesting.
Pellè might not be a nobody, and few can blame him for his decision, but he must know he has given up the chance ever to be a phenomenon again.
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