Pioneers head east in game's latest gold rush
From Siberia and the Middle East to China, Rory Smith follows the trail of new money
Attended at his every waking moment by an interpreter, provided with an on-call chauffeur should he wish to explore his new surroundings and hosted in the opulent accommodation befitting a man paid more than £10m a year – the cosseted luxury awaiting Nicolas Anelka in Shanghai is not exactly redolent of the hardship of the pioneer. But while the lavish trappings of the Orient do not suggest it, that is exactly what the Frenchman is: the first global superstar to open up football's newest, and perhaps its final, frontier.
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As the game's traditional power bases in western Europe have teetered to the brink of collapse, elsewhere the boom years continue unabated. In all but a handful of cases, football in the old world mirrors its economy: faltering under the weight of debts accrued with reckless abandon in the hope that tomorrow would never arrive, inviting austerity measures – in the form of Uefa's financial fair play – to secure a future, however diminished. On its new horizons, the good times still roll.
In Russia, where oil oligarchs and energy plutocrats, arriviste billionaires and populist regional governments run clubs as playthings for political gain, the country's 16 top-flight teams were expected to spend more than $1bn on transfer fees and wages alone last season.
That figure includes the world-record salary, around £330,000-a-week, paid by Anzhi Makhachkala, to Samuel Eto'o, but it is not a distorted one: across the vast country, from the Black Sea to Siberia, Russian football is awash with money. Whose money varies: Anzhi are bankrolled by Suleiman Kerimov, the likes of CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow by the army and the railways; when Krylya Sovetov and Tom Tomsk ran into financial trouble, they wrote straight to Vladimir Putin, who "asked" local companies to invest in their team.
"A pretty typical story is Leonid Fedun, who owns Spartak Moscow," says the Russian journalist and author Igor Rabiner. "At the age of about 50, he earned huge money and felt the need to be famous. Football is a perfect way to do that. Nobody knew him before, and everyone knows him now.
"In the case of Kerimov, many think it was not a football decision, that there was an order from the upper levels of Russian politics. Dagestan is the poorest region in Russia, which wildly need positive emotions. Football takes away social tension. But at the same time, the authorities could not have forced Kerimov to invest as much as he has."
In the United Arab Emirates, too, they look to the bottomless wealth of the nation's richest individuals. Here, Manchester City's Sheikh Mansour bin-Zayed al-Nahyan, has already won a league title, with Al Jazira. His cast of stars in his homeland is costly, too, most notably the Brazil international Ricardo Oliveira, one of a number of foreign stars in the Emirati Pro League.
"Most of the clubs in the UAE are owned by sheikhs," said Dr Khalid Mohammed Abdullah, managing director of the UAE Pro League Committee. "They are lifelong fans whose ambition is to improve UAE football. The financial commitment they make allows fans to see stars on UAE pitches."
Those funds have brought unprecedented attention to the UAE league; a season boasting Diego Maradona as manager of Al Wasl and Asamoah Gyan, earning £125,000-a-week, at Al Ain is "the biggest in UAE history," according to Dr Abdullah. It is not simply about glamour, there is a long-term plan.
"The series of high-profile names which has joined our teams will raise the level of football here," Dr Abdullah told The Independent. "We aim to be pioneers of football in this region. The recruitment of foreign players and coaches adds a new value to the league, and this will help teams to perform well in the Asian Champions League.
"They give our local players the chance to play alongside professional, talented and experienced players. This well help them to improve on and off the pitch. They do not just improve their teams' results, but the image of football in the UAE."
That is the logic applied in Russia and China, too; the Kremlin sees football as a tool with which to accelerate regeneration, and a tax-in-kind for the billionaires that Vladimir Putin's regime has helped to create. By bringing stars to the furthest-flung corners of the country, the likes of Kerimov can boost that region's identity and with it the country's status.
In Brazil, it is the converse: this is no new frontier, so associated is the country with the game, but there is a renaissance none the less, clubs mired in penury for years, accustomed to seeing their stars leave, ever younger, for the old world, now striking innovative deals with the companies benefiting from an economic boom to give them the clout to fend off the vultures.
Santos, currently in Japan for the Fifa Club World Cup, have retained both Ganso and Neymar, the two brightest prospects in South America, and are likely to keep the vultures away until the 2014 World Cup; others, like the former Seville striker Luis Fabiano, have seen fit to return to their homeland. Their wages are split between their clubs and a conglomerate of local businesses, each afforded a sliver of image rights in recompense.
It is a combination of the Russian and Brazilian models, though, which has shaped the final frontier. In China, a league chronically afflicted by the spectre of match-fixing continues to attract sponsors and benefactors, despite scant promise of a return on an investment.
"Some investors are under pressure from Beijing," says Cameron Wilson of Wild East Football, an English language website monitoring the game in China. "But there are others who do it for the love of the club or to make a long-term profit, or a mixture of all three.
"The money has been around in China for a while, but it only made it into football this summer, when Guangzhou Evergrande paid $10.6m for Dario Conca from Fluminense in Brazil. There is a tendency among the Chinese for not wanting to be the first to take a risk, but the strong regional identities here mean there is also an element of wanting to keep up with the Joneses. Shanghai lost face when Guangzhou signed Conca, and now, with Anelka, they are trying to regain it. And as soon as one club steps out and gets a player of that calibre, everyone else will want to, too."
Before Anelka, the overwhelming majority of foreigners in China were sundry Serbs and Brazilians. Even Conca, an Argentine who won Brazilian player of the year while at Fluminense, was relatively unheralded outside South America; only a handful of British pioneers, meanwhile, have ventured East since Paul Gascoigne's four-game spell for Gansu Tianma in 2003.
The Scots Derek Riordan and Maurice Ross featured briefly, and so too Marlon Harewood, the nomadic striker who spent six months with Shenzhen Phoenix earlier this year. Now training with his former club Nottingham Forest, it is not too much of a stretch to say he is the most noted alumnus of the division.
"We lived full-time at the training camp, which is pretty intense, but if you can cope with that, I'd recommend going out there to anyone," says the striker, whose goals helped the club – now renamed Ghuangzhou R&F – gain promotion. "The facilities are great, really modern, and the clubs spare no expense on equipment: the coaches are Mercedes Benz, the training gear Nike and adidas.
"We had everything provided for us at the training camp, a film room, table tennis, all that sort of stuff, and the foreign players are given private rooms. There were restaurants on site – one side Chinese, one side Western – and generally the cultural differences weren't as great as I thought they might be. Everyone spoke English pretty fluently, and while there are restaurants serving snake and rat there's plenty of Starbucks. It was a great experience."
Not one without its difficulties: Harewood admits that his club's proprietors did not understand that their famous foreign signing might not score in every game. The riches, one suspects, are enough to make up for such travails; besides, such is the frontiersman's life, from Anelka's trail east, to the snows of Siberia, and the blazing desert of the Gulf.
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