In 1893 Willie Groves set a record as the first footballer to merit a three figure transfer fee, when Aston Villa paid just over £100 to buy the Scot from West Brom.
To today’s generation of professional footballers that will seem a piddling sum – Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez reputedly takes just four minutes to earn £100.
Over in China, another Argentinian is smiling, having set a transfer record of his own. Dario Conca is now China’s “most expensive soccer import,” reports Xinhua. The footballer has joined Guangzhou Evergrande for a fee of $10 million, in a deal that will see him play for the southern Chinese club for three and a half years.
WiC has written before about high-spending Evergrande. Property mogul Xu Jiayin has pumped significant funds into the club since acquiring it two seasons ago, breaking the transfer record twice last year with the purchase of players from Brazil. Money, it seems, can indeed buy success: the team currently tops the Chinese Super League by nine points. That has the added benefit of being good publicity for Xu’s real estate firm, also called Guangzhou Evergrande.
However, Xu’s motives are not only commercial. He is another of the Chinese billionaires apparently intent on helping to clean up Chinese football (WiC wrote about Wang Jianlin, boss of Dalian Wanda Group in issue 113).
Prior to his arrival, the Guangzhou club had been relegated and disgraced for its part in a match-fixing scandal. Now with a South Korean coach and a host of foreign talent, it’s enjoying something of a renaissance.
Conca made his debut for the club last week, helping it to a 5-0 victory over Nanchang Hengyuan with his first goal. The former captain of Brazilian club Fluminese is the highest-calibre foreign import to reach Chinese shores thus far. Inevitably, he’s already being described as Guangzhou’s very own Lionel Messi.
WiC doubts if Conca is quite in that class. But he didn’t come cheap. The China Daily reports he is earning $7 million a year for his services, which puts him in the top 50 for world football.
In fact, local publication Soccer News reports that he twice turned down the Chinese offer, before finally telling the chairman of his Brazilian club that he could no longer refuse: “I have never seen so much money in my life!”
Evergrande club chairman, Liu Yongzhuo has said the team is now targeting victory in the AFC Champions League – the Asian version of Europe’s Champion League. He wants to lift the trophy within five years and says he will keep signing foreign players until that goal is realised. However, in a telling remark Liu admitted the negotiations with Conca had been extended ones, primarily because “top class players remain unwilling to play here”.
Still, Liu is optimistic that will change and reckons the profile of Chinese football is already on the rise.
He told Nanfang Daily: “European heavyweight media such as La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport have started to pay attention to the China Super League, which is all because there is a player of the year from the Brazilian league willing to come to China to play. This in their view is unthinkable, but becomes a reality. Conca makes a small step as an individual, which becomes a big step for Chinese football.”
Somewhat more controversially, Liu has asked other Chinese teams to avoid injuring Conca through cynical fouls – as this would be yet another blow to the league’s reputation, he says.
Such a request is not without precedent. Back in 2007, Alex Ferguson publicly asked referees in England to afford the then Manchester United star Ronaldo more protection from bad tackles. And tackling in China can be especially awful. Liu may have in mind a career-ending challenge on Beijing Guoan’s goalkeeper by Tan Wangsong, then playing for Tianjin Teda (see WiC21).
In his debut match, Conca did get a minor roughing-up from the opposition, but not enough to enrage the 50,000 watching fans. But it prompted Liu to remind the Beijing Times: “To protect Conca is to protect the art of football – only by taking the skill-oriented road can Chinese football have a good future.”
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