Right now, make no mistake. Many still see it as what Qatar, the UAE and Russia have been at different times over the past 20 years: a giant cash machine for clubs with excess inventory and the right connections. Sure, we all read the earnest feature stories about the game’s boom in China, about President Xi Jinping wanting to turn the country into a superpower and about the out-of-whack prices shelled out for (mostly) South American players based in Europe.
But truth be told, there was reason to be skeptical. China competing with Europe was global warming: a threat, sure, but one that felt a long, long way off. And now comes Oscar’s proposed move from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG which, he says, is “90 percent” done. What boggles here is the fee: £60 million (dollar;75m).
You want context? Oscar would become the seventh most expensive player in history.
Sixteen months ago, such a fee would have fetched you a Kevin De Bruyne (with change left over). Kick in a few more and you could have had Luis Suarez in 2014. And now Shanghai SIPG are paying that for Oscar, a guy who started 17 league games for his club side, Chelsea, while making zero appearances for his country in the last 12 months.
It’s not hard to see the logic from Chelsea’s perspective. They’ve been here before, with Ramires, who was sold to Jiangsu Suning a year ago for £23.4m (dollar;30m at the time). They paid £19.35m (dollar;30.5m at the time) for Oscar back in 2012.
Through the magic of amortization, his book value today can’t be more than £8m (dollar;10m). That’s a £52m (dollar;65m) paper profit right there — even better than the roughly £19m (or dollar;25m) they made from Ramires.
(To explain amortization: When clubs sign players, they spread the cost of the purchase over the life of the player’s contract. If the player extends his deal, the residual amount is spread over the extension. But if he’s sold, the value of the sale is booked straight away.)
For a guy who — in the words of his own manager, Antonio Conte, not mine — is finding it “difficult” through no fault of his own. The technical term for that is “bite your hand off and bolt out of the room before anyone changes their mind.”
But what does Shanghai SIPG — and, more broadly, the Chinese game — get out of it? Are they just being blindly ripped off?
To conclude otherwise, you’d need to buy into the fact that the Brazilian playmaker is a game-changer. Not for what he is right now, but for what he was — a household name on a major European club and a regular on the Selecao — and for what he may yet become, a legit A-list superstar capable of carrying a super club.
Oscar turned 25 in September. He has 48 caps for Brazil and despite not playing for them in the past year, he was called up as recently as October, suggesting Tite isn’t giving up on him. He is ninth among active Brazilian internationals and of those ahead of him, only Neymar is younger.
You can debate whether Hulk, Jackson Martinez, Freddy Guarin, Graziano Pelle or Ramires were bigger names when they moved (I’d suggest no) or whether Alex Teixeira or Ricardo Goulart — both of whom are of similar age — have a bigger upside. But it’s fair to say nobody ticks both boxes the way Oscar does. And that, you’d imagine, is why we’re talking such a humongous fee.
What does he need to do to live up to it?
Simple economics probably won’t do the trick and, in any case, they don’t apply here. Shanghai SIPG’s finances aren’t public. Even if he comes in, scores 20 goals a season for the next decade and delivers league and Asian Champions League titles, in terms of hard numbers, it’s nearly impossible for them to justify such an outlay if you’re using traditional accounting methods.
But there are two factors in his favour that come into play. One is that Oscar will have resale value … for a few years at least. And provided he performs, of course, he’ll have a stage on which to show it. Tite has shown no prejudice toward China-based players; in fact, he included three of them (Renato Augusto, Gil and Paulinho) in his last squad. If he harnesses his talent in China, the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Copa America will offer enough of a showcase that Shanghai can hope to recoup all or most of the outlay.
The other factor, obviously, is the long game. What role can he play, if any, in China’s master plan?
Here, we’re talking projections and predictions and it all gets fuzzy. There are so many variables that anything can happen, starting with the fact that Xi Jinping is 63 and the main driver of the football revolution. You don’t need to be a forensic economist to figure out that China’s football boom is partly driven by state support, and that many of the conglomerates backing the game have close ties (and, in some cases, are directly owned) by state entities. Those who aren’t are jumping on board precisely because the government is driving the bandwagon.
If China’s next president decides that, say, basketball or rugby or contract bridge is the way to go, then things could take a wholly different turn. That said, China’s circumstances are different from other experiments at building a football powerhouse.
Gulf states were simply too small, while Russia are too reliant on a gas and oil economy. The United States has adopted much more of a “gradual growth” approach, in part because the government wasn’t cutting checks and because MLS is driven by private investors who need to break even sooner rather than later.
It’s a roll of the dice, sure. But the global landscape is changing, and not just in football. If (and it’s a big if) the game ever pivots away from Europe or at least is shared out among continents at the highest level — the logical destination for reasons of population, size and economics is Asia.
And China wants to be there to reap the benefits. That, as much as anything, is the long game of which Oscar is now a part.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.