When Sebastian Lletget ended his 6-year stay at West Ham in order to play for LA Galaxy, no one batted an eyelid. After all, why would they? Though Lletget is only 22, he’s a California native and was struggling to crack the first-team squad in East London. So, rather than being farmed out to Colchester, Luton or Peterborough (the generic destinations for West Ham’s offcuts), he went back to the US in order to play for the Galaxy, the biggest team in the country.
You can see the logic of Lletget’s move and, equally, the logic of moves to MLS football from players like Tyrone Mears and Liam Ridgewell. A middling Premiership/Championship quality player will find a very welcome home in North America, not to mention the fact that, if they can scoop a designated player position, there’ll be more than healthy compensation. In the UK there is often a lot of fist-shaking about young players not being willing to move abroad in order to further their careers, so you can see the temptation of playing abroad in an English speaking, super rich country.
What appears less explicable to us is a move like the one made this summer by Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez. Xavi ended his 24 year tenure at the Nou Camp in order to move to Al-Sadd who, in fairness, are sort of the Barca of the Gulf. He has referred to playing in Qatar as a “thrilling project”, and who can blame him? I’d be more than thrilled with a reported salary of £7 million per annum. For £7 million, I’d shake Sep Blatter’s hand and become head of the Qatari FA.
The differences between Lletget and Xavi are, of course, myriad. Talent and experience, on one hand, and age and cost on the other. Unlike Steven Gerrard, Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane, Lletget is not one of LA Galaxy’s designated players, meaning that the maximum salary he can earn is $436,250, which equates to about $8,300 per week. Compare that to the $352,000 per week that Asamoah Gyan is being paid by Singapore SIPG, and you’ll notice that not all developing markets are created equal.
So should we be drawing a distinction between mercenary profiteering and genuine commitment to developing the game across the globe? Xavi has made all the right noises since announcing his decision to join Al-Sadd, possibly to deflect the criticisms of the European footbalista faithful. As part of his contract in Qatar, Xavi will be an ‘official ambassador’ for the 2022 World Cup and in a Q&A for the tournament’s official website, he outlined his reasons for moving to Qatar. “I want to bring all of my experience from Barcelona to Qatar, and I see that there are already teams here who like to play our style of football,” he said.
Al-Sadd is based in Doha, Qatar’s capital, a city of 900,000 people. It hosted the 2006 Asian Games, the 2011 Pan Arab Games and the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, and, as we’ve all heard, it’ll be one of the host cities for the 2022 World Cup. Clearly Qataris are sports crazy and with the money to back it up (Qatar’s GDP per capita is $93,714, compared to $41,787 in the UK and $53,041 in the US).
To play with hypotheticals for a moment: Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia. It is a city with a population of slightly over 1,000,000 and it’s largest football team, FC Ulaanbaatar, plays to crowds of little over 1,000 (in its defence, it’s only been around since 2011). The GDP per capita of Mongolia is $4,056 and the main sports in the country are wrestling, archery and horseracing. Now, if Xavi or Steven Gerrard or Asamoah Gyan had signed for FC Ulaanbaatar on a $200,000 per week contract (the rich in Mongolia are, after all, still very rich) how would we react to that? Is that salary more repugnant in a poorer country? Or is the commitment to working in a developing market more explicable when the market isn’t already flushed with cash?
It may seem deliberately flippant to compare Al-Sadd and FC Ulaanbaatar, but I am curious about where our distinctions lie on this issue. I don’t think that anyone would make the argument that the Middle East is undeserving of football development – nor would they make that argument about Asia or Africa – so the crux of the issue must come down to money. And perhaps our collective aversion to Qatar (and the UAE) is to do with the influx of money from these nations into the traditional leagues. Qatari ownership of Manchester City, for example, has created a new superclub that still feels very uncomfortable within the historical framework of the Premiership. The same is true of PSG in Ligue 1 and New York City in MLS. Conversely, regulations in German football prevented Jordanian Hasan Abdullah Ismaik from taking anything more than a 49% stake in 1860 Munchen, so perhaps they won’t be attaining powerhouse status any time soon.
I think there’s also a sense that these developing leagues are impostors who don’t understand the importance of grassroots football (this is, of course, a false appearance, as the Qatari, Chinese, Thai and American leagues are all dominated by homegrown players, with the few notable exceptions). The Guardian’s Gregg Bakowski wrote an excellent piece about Esteban Cambiasso’s refusal to quietly retire to the lucrative climes of America or the Middle East, and I think he hits upon the core of our perception of these markets: they are snapping up discarded European greats in what feels like a commercial exercise.
That said, it’s clearly not as simple as that. Champions League quality players under-30 aren’t moving outside of the major 5 leagues. Players would rather warm the bench for Bayern, Real Madrid, Chelsea or Juventus than chance the arm in a developing market during the ‘prime’ of their career. And much of that is because they know they can fall back on it later on. The problem with these wealthy developing markets is that they continue to appear content with being a retirement home. Pele joined the New York Cosmos in 1975, at the age of 35, and, 40 years later the situation is the same. This summer, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo have all made the switch stateside in their 30s, to sign lucrative final deals. The MLS hasn’t really pushed on since the days when Pele and Beckenbaur were plying their trade, in terms of its ability to attract top quality talent.
The American league is clearly a massive commercial success, even if it hasn’t been able to crack the hegemony of the MLB, NBA and NFL. Likewise, the leagues in Qatar, UAE, Thailand, China, India and other Asian nations, are awash in cash. Singapore can spend millions on a famously lazy Ghanaian striker, whilst plough horses like Parma are blown into oblivion. It’s a funny world, but it’s not really a surprise that European football fans are slightly suspicious and resentful of these emerging markets who are driving up global transfer fees and wages without providing interesting or competitive leagues.
But when it comes to the players themselves, the line is very blurry. I am immediately wary about a move like Xavi to Al-Sadd, or Kaka to Orlando City. But I know that it’s the money that’s throwing my perception out of reality, because increasing the significance of global football leagues can only be a good thing. Maybe Xavi and Kaka are martyring themselves for the international good of the game, but it is hard to see the USA or Asia as anything other than a cushy option. That’s a problem that will continue to plague emerging football markets until a point where they can challenge the European leagues on their own terms.