Players explore the final frontiers
It's not just ageing footballers who go abroad these days – China and India offer chances for those with open minds and empty wallets
Whether or not Sir Dave Richards is right that Sheffield rather than China is the true home of football, neither of the city's two professional clubs has ever been in a position to pay a player £175,000 per week.
That is the sum Shanghai Shenhua are believed to be shelling out on Nicolas Anelka, who joined them from Chelsea three months ago in one of the January window's most significant transfers.
It illustrated not only the range of options for players as the world market opens up, but also that the money is available in places like China and Russia to attract marquee signings of the standing of Anelka and Samuel Eto'o, the Cameroon striker who is being paid even more in the brave new world of Anzhi Makhachkala. This weekend, Rio Ferdinand and Fernando Torres respectively have been linked with a move to those countries.
As well as China, there are now leagues in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, all looking for players. The proposed Indian Premier League, taking after the cricket version, will not happen after all this season, but the official I-League is in the market too. So are traditional destinations such as Australia and the United States, while Joe Cole in France, Scott Carson in Turkey and Michael Mancienne in Germany have proved there is still a welcome in Europe for English players not yet in their dotage.
A less celebrated team-mate of Anelka's is his compatriot Mathieu Manset, a striker on loan from Reading, for whom he appeared 29 times. "I'm excited to be going to a new country, I'll learn new things about football and when I come back I'll be ready to play here and score goals," he said.
Football in China, effectively banned under the Cultural Revolution of 1966, revived in the mid-Seventies with gimmicks like bonus points for headed goals, and peaked when the national team reached Fifa's top 40 in 1998 under Londoner Bob Houghton and qualified for the 2002 World Cup.
They have not done so since, but many observers believe that, as with India, population figures alone will make the countries a force now that widespread TV coverage of English and Spanish football is increasing enthusiasm for the game.
"You can't ignore the numbers – it's just a matter of time," says Francisco Marcos, a Portuguese who has been involved in football in the USA for almost 45 years. He believes the Statesalways has an appeal for British players – all the more so after the success of David Beckham and Robbie Keane – but adds: "I have friends in China, coaches from Portugal, and they say that the money's there now."
It clearly is for the super-rich running clubs such as Shanghai and their big rivals Guangzhou Evergrande, who signed the former Premier League players Zheng Zhi (Charlton) and Cho Won-hee (Wigan) and won the championship last year to reach the Asian Champions' League.
Marcos says: "Once China qualifies for a couple more World Cups, it's gonna happen. And the same with India, an emerging country that will provide markets for players from everywhere. For English players India's a natural, easier than China because of language and cultural similiarities."
Kenny Moyes, the brother of Everton's manager David, is well aware of that. As managing director of the football agency Libero, he is negotiating to take three or four players there at the end of the season to follow in the footsteps of Alan Gow, the former Scotland B midfielder who played in front of 80,000 crowds for Kingfisher East Bengal in their big local derbies this season. Gow has returned to Britain with Exeter City, joining Rohan Ricketts, another adventurer who has played in Canada, Hungary and Moldova.
"India's a great place to play, once they're used to the heat," Moyes said. "I've been an agent now for 16 years and there's definitely a shift with all these markets emerging, paying professional salaries."
The Indian Premier League was due to recruit players such as Robbie Fowler and Robert Pires and although the established I-League would welcome a marquee player or two to improve its profile, Moyes thinks the opportunities are essentially for younger men.
"It's not like it used to be going to America for a last pay-day," he says. "They want fit and healthy 25 to 30-year-olds. And they'll pay Championship-type salaries. Players need to have an understanding of the culture, but it's a brilliant place to be, especially Kolkata, which is a real hotbed of football. I see the kids there playing football inthe streets 20-a-side like the old days here."
Moyes has also taken Stuart Duff, formerly of Dundee United and Aberdeen, to Kazakhstan, neighbours of Dagestan, where Blackburn's Chris Samba and Chelsea's Yuri Zhirkov joined one of the few owners anywhere in the world with almost as much money as Roman Abramovich in Anzhi's Suleyman Kerimov. For security reasons they still live and train in Moscow, flying 1,500 miles to every "home" game.
There is less sense of danger in Thailand and Hong Kong, where Zesh Rehman, formerly of Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Bradford City, enjoyed playing so much he recommends it to anyone prepared to travel with an open mind.
"I had a wonderful year in the Thai Premier League," he said. "I learned a new language, embraced a new culture and got to play in front of passionate crowds in different countries in the AFC Cup. I'm now enjoying Hong Kong, which is a vibrant place to live. It's very tough now in England for out-of-contract players, so moving abroad is a viable option."
There have never been more varied opportunities for those bold enough to seize them.
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