Colombia forward Jackson Martinez last night became the most expensive transfer in the history of the Chinese Super League when he joined Guangzhou Evergrande from Atletico Madrid in a deal that the Guardian reports to be worth €42 million.
You could be forgiven for having needed to read that story twice in order to take it in.
After all, Martinez only joined Atletico Madrid from Porto in a €35 million deal at the start of July, and he arrived at the 2014 La Liga champions as one of the most coveted strikers in the world game.
The 29-year-old scored 92 goals in 136 appearances for Porto after arriving from Liga MX side Chiapas for a fee worth €8.8 million in 2012, and he finished each of the three seasons that he spent in Portugal as the Primeira Liga’s top-scorer. Furthermore, Martinez has been capped 39 times at international level, scoring 10 goals, and spearheaded the Colombia attack as they went as far as the quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Thus although the forward failed to live up to his price-tag in Spain, scoring just twice in 15 league appearances, he is by no means a “busted-flush” or “over the hill”. This is a consistently prolific, international-calibre centre-forward playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world who has elected to join the Chinese Super League for an eye-watering fee in the prime of his career.
The symbolic significance of this move is grave, not least owing to the fact that it fits into a broader pattern of elite-level player exodus from Europe to China over the previous 18 months.
After all, Martinez’s move to Guangzhou has come just a week after the Brazil international Ramires swapped Chelsea for Jiangsu Suning in a €33 million deal, and the former Arsenal forward, Gervinho, left Serie A side Roma in order to join Hebei China Fortune FC for €18 million at the end of January.
Furthermore, Inter Milan midfielder, Fredy Guarin, who came close to joining Chelsea two years ago, moved to Shanghai Shenhua last week and players of the calibre of former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, ex-Chelsea forward Demba Ba, Bayer Leverkusen alumnus Renato Augusto, and former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan have all been resident in China at least since the start of the 2016 season.
Money, of course, has a lot to do this.
BBC, for instance, reported last week that Asamoah Gyan – an international quality striker, sure, but certainly not a player near Martinez’s class – is earning around €327,000 ($350,000) per week at Shanghai SIPG, a fee only bettered in Europe by players such as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. One can only imagine, then, the kind of money that Martinez is set to make at Guangzhou and there is already speculation that the on loan Chelsea forward, Radamel Falcao, and Manchester City midfielder, Yaya Toure, could be set for a move East in the near future.
The European elite cannot help but be unsettled by this development.
While Champions League clubs could laugh-off Major League Soccer signing players such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka and Ashley Cole at the end of their careers, the reality is that Martinez, Ramires, Guarin and Gervinho are all still at an age and are capable of performing at a level sufficient for any of the major European leagues.
Thus although a move to China is only ever going to appeal to players more interested in money then in maximizing their talent in the short-term, the reality is that the Super League’s new wealth stands to threaten European hegemony in club football in the future. If Chinese clubs develop the ability to consistently poach elite international talent from European sides, the quality of the Champions League will inevitably be eroded and the global spread of leading talent made more equitable.
In turn, the case for the institution of an international Champions League-type competition will become more persuasive, one involving all of the leading club sides from all of FIFA’s strongest federations.
Martinez’s move to the Chinese Super League has the potential to be a watershed moment in the evolution of the modern game and the economic threat posed by clubs such as Guangzhou Evergrande will not have been lost on the European old guard.
[Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images]