The Great Haul to China

So by now you are probably aware of many players jumping ship and heading off to China. The reason, as you can guess, is obviously for financial rather than sporting reasons.

This has me torn.

On one hand, I question the ambition of players in their prime like 25-year-old Brazilian international Oscar, who left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG for a reported fee of €70 million, where he will earn almost €24 million annually.

Does he really want to win the Chinese Super League? A league that has only been in existence since 2004. I doubt it was his dream growing up in the streets of Americana in Sao Paulo. But for €24 million each year, he can play like it was.

That’s where I am torn. I would do the exact same. Any sane person would I guess. Football is a short career and you are much longer retired than you are playing (unless your name is Francesco Totti). And the only real loyalty in football is fan loyalty. There are exceptions of course – such as true one-club-men for example (see Francesco Totti).

In the last couple of years, a plethora of talent has flocked to the far east. Players such as Robinho, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have all been and gone. But even more recently, the massive sums of money are luring even more prominent players and managers.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas Boas, Gus Poyet, Felix Magath, Manuel Pellegrini and Fabio Cannavaro are among the name who made China their home. And probably not for the scenery.

But it’s the players who are earning ridiculous money. Aside from Oscar, here’s a list of the annual salaries of some of the league’s most prominent players:

  • Hulk, 30, (Brazil) Shanghai SIPG. €20 million.
  • Ezequiel Lavezzi, 30, (Argentina) Hebei China Fortune. €20 million.
  • Graziano Pelle, 31, (Italy) Shandong Luneng. €16 million.
  • Ramires, 28, (Brazil) Jiangsu Suning. €14 million.
  • Jackson Martinez, 29, (Colombia) Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. €13.4 million.
  • Alex Teixeira, 26, (Brazil) Jiangsu Suning. €11 million.
  • Gervinho (Ivory Coast), 29 Hebei China Fortune. €9.27 million.
  • Fredy Guarin, 29, (Colombia) Shanghai Shenhua. €7.65 million.
  • Demba Ba, 30, (Senegal) Shanghai Shenhua. €6.4 million.
  • Paulinho, 27, (Brazil) Guangzhou Evergrande. €6 million.

But the biggest earner will be Carlos Tevez, who turns 33 next week, will be earning a reported €38 million annually with Shanghai Shenua. An obscene amount. What would they have to pay to get Messi or Ronaldo to play in China?

While Super League clubs are restricted to four foreign players per team, and only four can be on the field at one time, including one from a different Asian Football Confederation (AFC) country. That said, the massive wave of talent to China shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

 

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Graham Taylor R.I.P.

The blog is very saddened to learn of the passing of former England manager Graham Taylor, following a suspected heart attack. He was 72.

“With the greatest sadness, we have to announce that Graham passed away at his home early this morning of a suspected heart attack,” read a family statement. “The family are devastated by this sudden and totally unexpected loss.”

Taylor’s playing career took him to Grimsby Town and Lincoln City, managed England during a difficult time as they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. He also had two spells in charge at Aston Villa, Watford as well as Wolves (where he signed a 14-year-old Dubliner called Robbie Keane).

Elton John, Paul McGrath and various clubs and sportsmen led the tributes to Taylor, a true footballing man.

 

January transfer window opens: let the action begin!

On Sunday morning, as party revellers were celebrating the new year, many agents were preparing to get busy as the January transfer window opens. Love it or loathe it, the system has actually been used in many European leagues before being made compulsory by FIFA during the 2002–03 season. For the past fourteen years, it has been a source of great entertainment with some memorable and forgettable buys.

This transfer window is already full of rumours. There has already been reports of Liverpool being linked with Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk. Benfica owe Swedish minnows Vasteras €250,000 from purchasing Victor Lindelof back in 2012 but the Lisbon could be cashing in to the tune of more than 200 times that figure next month as Manchester United are eyeing up the Swede.

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James Rodriguez was one of the stars of the 2014 World Cup. His tenure at Real Madrid has been somewhat inconsistent because of a combination of injuries and lack of form. That said, the 25-year-old is still a huge player. Inter Milan have had their eyes firmly on the Colombian international. As has Antonio Conte who is reportedly keen on bringing James to Stamford Bridge.

Because of the increasing strength of Barcelona over the past 10 years, the club always seem to buy decent players who will rarely get a look in (see Ibrahim Affelay,  Martín Cáceres, Alex Hleb, Alex Song). Right-back Aleix Vidal has become one such player, with currently-in-crisis Swansea looking to see if they can snap up the Spaniard.

There’s countless other players linked with countless other clubs. On 1st February, just stay peeled to drama in the Sky Sports News studio.

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Football around the world mourns with Chapecoense.

When the news broke on Tuesday morning of the plane crash that carried the Brazilian side Chapecoense to Colombia to play what was arguably their biggest game in their history – the final of the Copa Sudamericana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League) – I, like everyone else, was in utter shock.

The Santa Catarina-based side were enjoying their biggest season in their history. In 2009, they were playing in Serie D, before being promoted to Serie C, where they played for three years. They were promoted to Serie B in 2012 and, after only one season, the club who only formed in 1973 as a result of a merger of two amateur clubs, were playing in Brazil’s top tier of football.

But this season was arguably the club’s biggest. They drew inspiration and similarities from the current Premier League champions.

“Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title,” the late manager Caio Júnior said after a league win over giants Fluminense. “I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.”

Indeed it was on the continental scale where Chape really made headlines. In the Copa Sudamericana, they surpassed even their own fans’ expectations and made it to the final, beating teams like Argentine giants Independiente and San Lorenzo on the way.

But then unimaginable tragedy struck.

Seventy one people died on that flight as it approached Medellin, including 21 journalists and almost the entire first team and managerial staff. The surviving players were defenders Alan Ruschel and Neto. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann also survived but had to have one of his legs amputated, according to reports.  Goalkeeper Danilo initially survived the crash, but later died in hospital from his injuries.

It’s an enormous loss. But I’m sure friends, families and supporters can take some comfort with the support the club has been receiving from the footballing community around the globe.

Força Chapecoense!

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Things turn ugly for Swedish hero Larsson.

Henrik Larsson is regarded by many in his native Sweden as a footballing hero. And rightly so. But the former Celtic striker was at the centre of some unsavoury scenes at the end of Helsingborgs’ 2-1 defeat to Halmstad last week.

Helsingborgs’ defeat meant that the club would be relegated for the first time in 23 years. Naturally this was catastrophic for fans of The Reds. But it turned ugly after the final whistle when supporters ran on to the pitch, most of whom had their faces covered by scarves and balaclavas, attempted to pull the jersey off Larsson’s son and HIF striker Jordan Larsson.

The 45-year-old Helsingborg manager then proceeded towards the supporters, appearing to be ready to defend himself if things turned a bit violent, which looked like something of an inevitability.

“I didn’t see that they attacked Jordan but if I had, I would have gone in there towards him,” the former Barcelona and Swedish international said afterwards. “I was not going to run from there. If they turn on me, they turn on me.”

Larsson left his position as manager a few days ago. His son is still with the club, but it rumoured to be moving to another Allsvenskan club.

 

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Is this the worst miss in the history of football?

I’ve seen some bad misses in my time. But, ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to watch is quite possibly the worst miss in the history of the beautiful game.

The culprit was Djuricic, a striker for Serbian side Lokomotiva who somehow managed to miss an open goal against Turbina in Belgrade, when he was mere inches from the goal line.

Wow.

 

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Three points difficult, but definitely doable for Boys In Green.

It’s been quite the extraordinary week. With the news of new President-elect of the United States, the loss of the beloved Leonard Cohen, as well as the historic UFC event taking place in New York this weekend dominating the sports headlines, it’s easy to forget that the Boys In Green face Austria is a huge World Cup qualifying match tomorrow.

What should never be forgotten is the inclusion of Dundalk’s Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan. The duo have impressed Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane – and rightly so. Dundalk have been performing fearlessly both domestically and, impressively, on the European stage.

Defender John O’Shea and midfielder James McClean had been doubts for the tie in Vienna because of hamstring and back injuries respectively, however both were able to depart with the squad this morning. Only one player, Leeds midfielder Eunan O’Kane, has been forced to return to his club with a groin injury.

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Something that bothered me last week was the reports Eamon Dunphy gave that Ireland, if we play well, can earn a point at the Ernst Happel Stadion tomorrow. Content with a draw, it’s a wonder why Dunphy never went into football management. It reminds me of the time former Ireland goalkeeper coach Alan Kelly said that “two points out of six” wouldn’t be too bad for two similar qualifying games for Euro 2012. He was relieved of those duties in 2013.

A point would be the bare minimum we should leave Vienna with. Also despite our lack of attacking available tomorrow, and Austria’s world-class players like, most notably, David Alaba, the boys in green have absolutely nothing to fear. Determination and heart has always been Ireland’s strong point. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable.

The squad is:

Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (West Ham United), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Colin Doyle (Bradford City)

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Richard Keogh, Alex Pearce (Derby County), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Paul McShane (Reading), Shane Duffy (Brighton & Hove Albion), Andy Boyle (Dundalk)

Midfielders: Aiden McGeady (Preston North End), James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), David Meyler (Hull City), Stephen Gleeson (Birmingham City), Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City), Jonathan Hayes (Aberdeen), Daryl Horgan (Dundalk)

Forwards: Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Adam Rooney (Aberdeen), Kevin Doyle (Colorado Rapids), David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town)

 

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Five of the best under-21s in the world today.

As Francesco Totti recently celebrated his 40th birthday and 24th year in Roma’s senior side, it got me thinking how there are some supremely gifted up-and-coming players that are half his age – or in some cases, even younger.

Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
A sublime midfielder, the 19-year-old Belgian is already into his fourth season with the Brussels side. Having made his debut in summer 2013, Tielemans became the youngest ever Belgian to play in the Champions League in October 2013. All the big clubs around Europe have been keeping an eye on him – he definitely won’t be at Anderlecht forever.

 

Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)
When Diego Maradona famously said that he watched his “successor in Argentine football” in Leo Messi, I do wonder if Gigi Buffon thought the same of Donnarumma. The 17-year-old is a phenomenon to put it frankly. His athleticism for his 6 foot 5 frame is phenomenal, and he possesses the agility and footwork of any world-class ‘keeper today. He will become the world’s best between the posts, mark my words.

 

Carles Aleña (FC Barcelona)
Many Catalan-based journalists have for some time praised Sergi Samper as the heir to Xavi’s throne in the centre of the pitch. An intelligent holding midfielder with a eye for glorious key passes. The truth is, the most complete young player Barcelona have in that position for the next generation is 18-year-old Carles Aleña. Irish fans had a glimpse of the midfielder as he made his debut against Celtic here at the Aviva Stadium. He will without question be a big player for the Blaugrana.

 

Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk)
The 20-year-old has with ease filled the void left by China-bound Alex Teixeira at the beginning of 2016, and has wowed crowds at most grounds he plays in. Widely regarded as one of the top young promising players, fans, critics and former pros rate the Ukrainian to go as far as Shevchenko did and even better it. A top player who will play for a huge club no doubt about it.

 

Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich)
The French winger is, of all the people on this list, possibly the most complete and uniquely gifted players. Currently with Bayern on loan from Juventus, 20-year-old possesses all the attributes and more to become one of the world’s best. His pace, skills, touch, and vision, combined with his diversity to play on either wing or, if needed, as a centre forward. A phenomenon with a massive future.

 

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Carlos Alberto R.I.P.

The blog is very saddened to learn of the passing of Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto. The 72-year-old died today after suffering a heart attack in Rio de Janiero.

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Alberto was captain of the Brazil side in the 1970 World Cup and led them to victory. He scored the forth goal in the final in the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The goal is often considered one of the greatest goals in the history of the tournament.

He enjoyed a twenty year playing career. In Brazil, he had two spells for Fluminense, but it was at Santos where the defender made his name as a world-class player. He spent a number of years playing in the United States playing most notably for the New York Cosmos.

He will be remembered as an incredibly gifted right back, and a leader of arguably one of the greatest teams of all time.

 

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New UEFA president open to move Champions League final stateside.

“What I know is that I’m a team player, a man of conviction, a passionate man and a man of his word. I am not a showman and I’m not a man of unrealistic promises.”

The words of the new president of UEFA Aleksander Čeferin. Indeed the Slovenian Football Association chief’s rise from relative obscurity to landing the most powerful role in European football in six months is a great story in itself.

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When the 49-year-old faced the world’s media following his 42-13 triumph over the far more experienced Dutch FA president, Michael van Praag, both he and the media knew the work he had ahead of him and the changes he would need to make.

At the time of his appointment, Čeferin vowed his first priority will be to review the controversial recent deal to give more Champions League revenue to the continent’s bigger clubs.

Today the new UEFA president has said that he would be open to having the Champions League final played outside of Europe.

“I think it might be an idea in future but we have to speak about it,” the Slovenian said. “To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan for example is almost the same or the same as if you go to New York. For the fans it’s no problem but we should see. It’s a European competition so let’s think about it.”

Personally I think the idea of that is as ridiculous as staging an All-Ireland final in Düsseldorf.

But Čeferin did also today say he was preparing the first open bidding process for the right to host the Champions League final. Up to now there is no public process for UEFA to award the the finals to football associations or cities. It all seems to be done in secret. Dodgy? Probably. For Wembley to be awarded it twice in three years under Platini’s tenure is something worth mentioning.

“The bidding process should be very clear because if you get the Champions League finals or Europa league finals as a political favour then it’s not OK,” he said. “With a clear bidding procedure I will protect also the administration and myself because whoever tries to call us, to push us, to ask us for such a favour we will have a clear answer, ‘Sorry there are clear rules we cannot do it.’”

I long for a Champions League final at the Aviva Stadium someday. Definitely not in Yankee Stadium.

 

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Is that it for Big Sam?

England manager Sam Allardyce is under serious pressure right now having been filmed giving advice to undercover Telegraph reporters posing as Far East businessmen on how to “get around rules” about third-party ownership of players. The 61-year-old said it was “not a problem” to bypass the rules which in 2008 were banned by his employer, the FA.

He spoken about knowing agents that were “doing it all the time”, the former Sunderland manager, talked about a deal for which he would be paid £400,000 a year to address investors in a firm that wanted to buy footballers in Singapore or Hong Kong around four times over the year.

Big Sam also mocked his predecessor Roy Hodgson, calling him “Woy”, and also spoke negatively about his assistant Gary Neville in the secret recordings. Allardyce also criticised the England players in the Euros, but personally I see little problem with that as it’s merely an opinion – and one that many England fans share.

Having only been in charge for England after one game, it’s safe to say his future as England manager is in jeopardy. The FA requested a full transcript of the meetings with the undercover reporters.

Stand by for further updates.

 

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Yaya’s agent given the Guardiola ultimatum.

Yaya Touré’s agent Dimitri Seluk has been in the media before. Who can forget the episode back in 2014, when he claimed Yaya was so upset with Manchester City for not wishing him a happy birthday with a cake, the Ivorian was thinking of leaving the club.

“What happened at his birthday meant the club don’t care about him. It was proof,” Seluk said at the time. “None of them shook his hand on his birthday. It’s really sick”.

I know.

Now Seluk has got himself on the wrong side of current Man City boss Pep Guardiola. Touré was left out of the 25-man squad earlier this month and has yet to feature for City this season.

That led the Ukrainian to criticise Guardiola, questioning whether the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona boss had “the balls to say that he was wrong to humiliate a great player like Yaya”.

Guardiola was not pleased.

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“His manager spoke. In that moment, Yaya is out!” the Catalan said in a press conference on Tuesday. “Except if Mr Dimitri Seluk comes back into the press conference or his friends in the media, if he has not got the courage to call me, go to the media and apologise to Manchester City, the first one. The second one, his team mates and after that, the trainer. When that happens, Yaya will be part of the group and will have the same chance to play all of the games”

“I cannot imagine in my period when I was a football player,” Guardiola said. “My manager going to the media and speaking against Johan Cruyff, about this and about that.”

He’s right about that. Can you imagine if a footballer’s agent was to criticise a figure such as Alex Ferguson?

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Guardiola has received criticism in the past from agents and players. At Bayern Munich for example, Franck Ribery said the 45-year-old “lacks experience” and  “talks too much”. Others, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, famously disagreed with Guardiola’s ethics, which cost the Swede his career at Barcelona, which he called at the time his “dream club”.

Yaya Touré it seems could well be on his way out of the blue half of Manchester. Seluk is incredibly outspoken and don’t forget that Guardiola has in the past turfed out big name players such as Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, and of course Ibrahimovic to name but a few.

But this is a man who also knows what he is doing. Pep Guardiola after all has won 14 trophies in the first four years of his managing career and is globally considered as one of the best managers in the world.

Like birthday cake-gate, we’ll see how this plays out.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five top footballers you forgot played for obscure clubs.

I was reading an article recently about how Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi went from Real Madrid to Barcelona via Italian side Brescia, where he played in Serie B, I had forgotten that the former Galatasaray manager has played in Italy’s second tier for a relatively obscure side. There are some other big name players that played for teams that most of us forgot about. Let’s look at some.

Yaya Touré – Metalurh Donestsk.

In 2003, the younger Touré brother had a trial with Arsenal. He even started a pre-season game against Barnet in which his performance was described as “average”. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was still keen to sign the the talented 20-year-old but Touré had difficulties in obtaining a work permit, and the Ivorian signed for Ukrainian side Metalurh Donetsk, where he spent one and a half years. Within two years of leaving Donetsk, he signed for a little known club called Barcelona.

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David Bentley – FC Rostov.

The story of David Bentley is interesting in itself. Having not played for more than a year, the former-England international retired from football in 2014, aged just 29, citing his loss of passion for the game. In the 2012-2013 season, the midfielder went to Rostov-on-Don, in south-western Russia, to sign for FC Rostov, becoming the first Englishman to play in the Russian Premier League. An ankle injury hampered his time there, and he made seven appearances for the club.

Hulk – Tokyo Verdy.

Brazilian winger Hulk currently plays out in the Chinese Super League for SIPG, along with a plethora of talent following the ridiculous cash on offer to anyone with talent willing to play it seems. In the late-noughties, the Brazilian was one of the most sought-after players in the game signing first for FC Porto, then Zenit St. Petersburg. The latter spent €60 million on his transfer. But before his European triumph, Hulk had a three year stint in Japan, where was scoring goals for fun and setting up countless others.

Joan Capdevila – Lierse.

Joan Capdevila in an under-rated player in many ways. He was a mainstay in the Spanish national team, during their dominant years as a European and World Cup winning force. He was the only member of the Spanish side in the 2010 World Cup final who was not a Real Madrid or Barcelona player. Having played top flight football for years with Villareal, Deportivo, Benfica to name but a few, in 2015, Capdevilla signed for Belgian second division side Lierse, making five appearances. He now bizarrely plays for Andorran side Santa Coloma.

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Samuel Eto’o – Antalyaspor.

In the mid-noughties, Samuel Eto’o was scoring goals left and right for Barcelona. Often regarded as the greatest ever Cameroonian footballer ever, he is also the most decorated African of all time. With successful stints at Inter Milan and Russian side FC Anzhi (remember them?), Eto’o had short stints with Chelsea, Everton and Sampdoria. He now plays for Turkish side Antalyaspor, aged 35.

 

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Super Mario regrets Liverpool, but insists the future is bright.

Well, it’s safe to assume that we won’t be seeing Mario Balotelli around Merseyside again. Not unless he joins Everton. The Italian striker was in the news this weekend having scored twice for his new club Nice against the mighty Marseille in a 3-2 win, and also claiming that his stint for Liverpool was “the worst decision of my life”.

The 26-year-old – he’s only twenty-six – scored four goals in 28 appearances in all competitions for the Reds. He scored only the one goal in 20 Serie A games on loan at Milan last season before Jurgen “The Normal One” Klopp deemed him surplus to requirements and Balotelli joined Nice on a free transfer.

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“Apart from the fans, who were fantastic, and some players who I got on really well with, I didn’t like the club,” the former Man City striker said. “I had two coaches, with Rodgers and Klopp for a short time, but neither their methods nor their personality left me with a good impression”

I rate Balotelli highly. I think he’s a gifted player. But, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, he appears to have a lack of interest at times. I’ve seen him train a few times and needless to say, he’s wasn’t exactly giving it 100%.

But perhaps Balotelli can turn it around at Nice (I know, I know, we’ve said that before). He’s 26 now. When he was 18 or 19 and promising if difficult player, managers made allowances. Ask Roberto Mancini.

He still regards himself as an elite player. When asked about the Ballon d’Or, he said “I think I could have already won it by now, but by working hard in training I could still win it in the next two or three years.”

The truth is that he’s been nowhere near making the final three, let alone winning it. But he’s right. It’s not too late. Football is a short career and regrets last a lot longer. I wonder is Super Mario finally realising this and will he get down to showing the world what a remarkable player he truly can be.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)