Watching Kashima Antlers put up such a spirited display on behalf of the Asian Football Confederation (despite qualifying as the host nation’s champion) in the Club World Cup was a delight to see.
It wasn’t just their fighting spirit or never-say-die approach to the past few weeks – more the technical and tactical acumen with which they played, right through to the final. To push Real Madrid all the way to extra-time? Impressive.
But nor am I massively surprised. Asian football is a whole lot better than people think. The J-League has a real argument for being a top-ten league in the world, despite a wages-to-talent ratio that is modest at best.
Still, the derisive way that Europe looks at the Club World Cup is symptomatic of how they view the rest of the football world: an afterthought.
We, as outsiders, are merely expected to passively consume European football as observers. As participants? Please. Know your place.
It is though we should never aspire to be better than we are; that Europe’s hegemony must remained unchallenged.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Europhile. I love the domestic leagues, cups, the European club competitions and the European Championships themselves. But there is a world of football happening out there.
Oscar’s pending move this January from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG appears all but agreed, with a staggering A$102.6 million fee passing from the Far East to the West End. For his trouble, the 25-year old will earn almost $600,000 per week.
Jackson Martinez was previously the biggest name to move to China while still in his prime, but he did so at age 29, perhaps when he started to feel the odd bump and bruise.
But the reaction in Europe to Oscar’s forthcoming Oriental change is one of disbelief and dismissal. Even anger.
“Oscar is too good for China,” wrote Daniel Taylor in the Guardian this past weekend.
“It is no place for any footballer with genuine ambition and surely, if he has to leave Chelsea, he could find another club that allows him to be a multimillionaire, with everything done for him and all the superstar’s accessories, in a country where the sport is not a national embarrassment.”
Taylor goes on to quote the nation’s loss to Syria as reason for proclaiming China’s status as a footballing joke.
Regardless of the fact that Guangzhou Evergrande won two Asian Champions League titles in four years (2013, 2015), and that the investment in Chinese football might just be on a scale we have never seen before, Europe still thumbs its nose.
But here's the catch. What will change that is signing elite players from around the world – like Oscar. Then, over the next half-century, it wants to develop its own.
This is exactly what the football industry in Europe doesn’t want to happen. But money talks. And the ambition is real. Very real.
From an Australian point of view, it’s fantastic. A rising tide lifts all boats, and if China has the foresight to boost its backyard, all of Asia will benefit. The ACL will become way more attractive and our players will get greater opportunity. The Asian Cup improves and so on. Win, win, win.
Look, the price paid for these players (think the $60.2 million transfer fee for Martinez, or the $58.3 million in wages Graziano Pelle will earn for two-and-a-half years at Shandong Luneng) is way over the odds. But if the mission was to rock the global football boat, it’s certainly done that. They'll get better bang for their buck as their reputation improves.
Besides, it’s even getting harder to buy the world’s best young talent – consider Kenedy and Wallace, already both owned by Chelsea, and Gabriel Jesus, who joins Manchester City in January.
But if they’re smart, this is where China can get in first. Acquiring the world’s best youngsters from outside Europe would see them take a giant leap forward. They might even win a Club World Cup one day.
Few expect Europe ever to be seriously challenged, but things are changing right before our eyes, whether the old world likes it or not.