In the sun of Niedersachsen, and with a vast Viking army of Danish fans, clad in red and white, in the stands, Brazil’s No. 10 was showing cerebral vision and a gossamer touch in 2012. Oscar was omnipresent, picked out excellent passes, weaved his way past the Danes gracefully and was nearly involved in every offensive move from Brazil. On his full national team debut, the Brazilian midfield metronome provided Hulk with two assists.
He was part of a Brazilian generation that wanted to conquer a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. Among Neymar, Lucas Moura, Leandro Damiao and Paulo Henrique Ganso, Oscar was a skilled prodigy, a fragile ballerina, for whom, seemingly ready-made, a preposterously great career map was projected – a prancing fast-forward to footballing greatness.
In observing, watching and absorbing unruined youth lies deep pleasure, because many will disappear, burdened by the demands of spangled football – the Darwinistic rise to the elite level is unforgiving. Oscar displayed that he was The One – great players are dazzling when they are young, but only a few maintain that trait of dazzling greatness.
The skill merchant who faded out
Here was a skill merchant, a virtuoso, who was destined for distinction, and lustre. A few weeks later, Chelsea acquired Oscar for $30 million from his Brazilian club Internacional. In London, Oscar and Brazil reached the final before imploding against the cunning and artful Mexicans.
As it turned out, Oscar has been good, but not great. This season, at Chelsea, the baby-faced Brazilian was peripheral, alienated by the tactical vision and preferences of Italian supremo Antonio Conte. He played just 455 minutes – an abomination, and ultimately somewhat apocalyptic for the Brazilian, even a biblical catastrophe, because it preceded his £52 million move to Shanghai International Port Group FC.
His transfer is tragic, a contemporary drama – a talented Brazilian, not even at the height of his formidable talents, moving away from the footballing epicentre, which Europe is with the teeming grandeur of the Champions League, to an Asian backwater, in the version of the Chinese Super League. At 25, Oscar’s choice is not a decadent pension plan, in the footsteps of many European star veterans to the Major League Soccer in the United States or the Qatar Stars League, but an abnegation of his own aptitude and future, tempted by an obscene salary.
Oscar has not been the only player to chase the yuan. He is following notably in the footsteps of Alex Teixiera, Gervinho, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé, Jackson Martínez and Hulk. China’s new spend lust is telling of their footballing aspirations.
Enter the Dragon
In China, football is not a recent phenomenon. In the third century BC during the Han dynasty, cuju, or kick-ball, was a leather ball game between two teams on a marked pitch with goals at two ends. Kicking was a key form of propulsion. Emperor Wu Di was both an aficionado and connoisseur, according to historical accounts.
Cuju might have been rudimentary, but China was the cradle of the earliest forms of football. China’s early settled cities and social hierarchies allowed for a framework wherein spontaneous play became organised and institutionalised. Yet the historical importance of the Chinese for football never translated into much in today’s global game, with a solitary participation in the World Cup back in 2002. Lóngzhī Duì, or Team Dragon finished bottom of Group C with a goal difference of -9 after matches against Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica respectively.
The game has received a new boost with President Xi Jinping’s insatiable desire to propel China onto football’s world stage. The president is a self-declared football fan – of the Manchester United inclination. In 1983, he attended a friendly between China and Watford in Shanghai. The London club’s comfortable 5-1 victory must have been traumatic for Xi: in 2011, he proposed a goal-orientated vision for his country. The Chinese president listed three ambitions, all football-related: to qualify for the World Cup, to host international football’s biggest jamboree and, ultimately, to win it.
Those Greek dreams speak of a larger narrative of Chinese nation-building. Football is a reflection of the president’s profound insecurities that, notwithstanding the republic’s great strides forward, China remains a B-list power, shunned for its many peculiarities and deemed unfit to join an elite club of countries that matter.
For Xi, football is a soft-power tool to mitigate the nagging fear that China’s quest for hegemony might never materialise, but rather fizzle out and be absorbed by the open and integrated global order. Football is required by the Chinese administration to rule with more legitimacy, for increased geopolitical standing and projection of power, according to Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong.
Football as a political tool
“In soft power resources, China still lacks cultural industries able to compete with Hollywood or Bollywood; its universities are not top ranked; and it lacks the many nongovernmental organizations that generate much of America’s soft power,” wrote famed American political scientist Joseph S. Nye in his book Is this American Century Over?
Nye also pointed out that the rise of China is a misnomer – “recovery is more accurate, because China was the world’s largest economy until it was overtaken by Europe and America in the past two centuries as a result of the industrial revolution.” Football, then, is both a political tool and a reflection of China’s economic resurgence, a gulf stream wherein Oscar is but the smallest of cogs.
Chinese club football is improving with, in recent seasons, Guangzhou Evergrande being a prime exponent .They won the Chinese Super League five consecutive times and rose steadily to become a continental powerhouse, winning the AFC Champions League under Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The 2015 Club World Cup was still a step too far as they failed to muster any pugnacity in the semi-finals against FC Barcelona’s triangulated game and Luis Suarez’s goal-poaching instincts.
But the CSL does remain a poor alternative to where Oscar could have played if he had wanted to uphold his credibility and not abandon any ambition. It is the tale of a superrich football player – four and a half years on the payroll Roman-Abramovich-owned Chelsea – having forgone a sense of perspective.
That applies to Chinese clubs as well, spending all too lavishly. They discount that, for all the money and schmaltz, football is inconsistent and uncontrollable – success can be bought, but just in part. The CSL may form the basis for a stronger national team, together with a grassroots level movement. By 2017, about 20,000 football-themed schools will be opened with the aim of educating and producing more than 100,000 players –but the grand plan will require maturation.
For now the Chinese will have to make do with imported superstars – Carlos Tevez, the latest acquisition by the CSL. At least, for Oscar, moving to Shanghai will rekindle his chances of playing for Brazil.
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