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Pochettino’s criticism of Oscar misses the point of why China is attractive to footballers

Poch is questioning Oscar for leaving Chelsea to play in China, but his views are hypocritical in light of Spurs’ sale of Paulinho in 2015.

Chelsea v Queens Park Rangers - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

If you follow the Premier League outside of Tottenham news you’re probably already aware that Brazilian midfielder Oscar has decided to leave Chelsea to sign with Chinese Super League side Shanghai SIPG. While the transfer fee between Chelsea and SIPG is already high – £60m by all accounts – Oscar is set to make an absolutely absurd amount of money while in China, over £400k/week, making him one of the highest paid players in world football.

He’s following in the footsteps of players like Carlos Tevez, Graziano Pelle, Didier Drogba, Demba Ba, Jackson Martinez, and Hulk who have all left Europe to play their football in China for huge salaries. (Ironically, he’ll also be playing for former Chelsea and Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas.)

That’s not sitting well with current Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino, who when asked about the transfer in a press conference yesterday, said that Oscar’s decision to switch to the Super League “strange” and dismissed the prospects of any of his players doing something similar.

"I don't believe it's a danger for us. I can accept all the decisions but it's sometimes difficult to understand this type of decision [Oscar's]. Football for me is not only money, it's to be competitive and for me the Premier League is the most important league in the world. It's not only money, for me, it's a passion.

"I need to feel the competition. When you're in the Premier League, you're competing in with the best managers, best players, best teams and that means a lot more than money."

So, I understand this perspective, because it’s a common one expressed by a lot of English football fans and especially football managers. While the game is increasingly run by monetary decisions, a club like Tottenham survives and even thrives by cultivating and maintaining a culture of shared progress. Spurs are not a destination club by nature. It does not have the financial clout to be able to attract and keep the top players in the sport, as illustrated most recently by the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.

Instead, Pochettino has created a club culture of progressive optimism. It’s not about the money (though it helps, as evident by the rash of recent contract extensions): it’s about the competition, the culture at the club, the striving to improve and to attain something, be it a Cup trophy, the Champions League, or a Premier League title. Viewed through that lens, a player leaving Tottenham to play in what is clearly a sub-par league in a state-fueled financial bubble but with gobs of money to spend is unfathomable, and quite possibly a betrayal.

"My players like to play football and like to compete with the best in the world and the Premier League is a place to be competitive. It would be strange for me if one of my players decided to move in that direction but different circumstances, I respect all opinions."

That’s all well and good, but what Poch is describing is very different to what Oscar has been going through at Chelsea. Oscar’s an extremely talented young midfielder, but found himself on the outs at Stamford Bridge under Antonio Conte. Our friends at We Ain’t Got No History are calling Oscar a very good player who failed to develop into a superstar, and that the time was probably right for him to make a move. Even so it sounds like even they are a little surprised that he’d make this particular jump.

For a player like Oscar who was already at one of the top clubs in the world, the lure of China has to be a particularly attractive one. Still only 25, Oscar is at a crossroads: either force a move to another club, be it in the Premier League or other top European league, where he would get regular football but likely for less money, or take a chance on China and make huge bank but while playing his football in a sub-par league that has much less international exposure.

Frankly, I can’t fault him for choosing the latter. By the time you’ve finished reading this article, Oscar will have made more money than I make in a month. Maybe it’s my experience as an American sports consumer that’s coloring my perception of this issue, but I can completely understand a player wanting to make a financial decision in the short term in order to open up more opportunities in the long term.

Moreover, Pochettino’s views gloss over the fact that Spurs have already sold a player to China — Paulinho’s sale to Shanghai Shenhua in the summer of 2015. In a sense, the situations of Oscar and Paulinho are similar: both were players that underperformed at their English clubs and were sold to the Chinese Super League for a relatively high fee and even higher wages. The difference is only one of degrees. Spurs were only too happy to break even on what was at the time a disastrous purchase of Paulinho. In this light, Pochettino’s criticism of Oscar feels off the mark.

When he’s seen out his contract in China, assuming he isn’t sold elsewhere, Oscar will have the freedom to go wherever he wants. Maybe he’ll land at another top club. Maybe he’ll come to a team like Spurs where he can play every week and help them achieve historical things. Or maybe he’ll want to return to Brazil and his first club Sao Paulo and play football for the love of the game. Regardless, he’ll be a multi-millionaire before he’s 30, and financial security will probably be much lower on his priority list than previous. He’ll be able to choose where to go, and for whatever wages he wants, even if it’s not top dollar.

For as much as we bag on professional footballers being “mercenaries” for following the money and abandoning competitive leagues for top money elsewhere, there’s a reason why playing in China is attractive. Footballer careers are short and tempestuous. One mis-timed tackle or an unfortunate training injury can end a career before it’s even begun. While fan outrage is understandable considering even an average Tottenham Hotspur player makes more money per week than many people earn in a year, it’s still a job to most players, and it’s natural to want to make as much money as possible during the time when they are desirable as professional athletes. Especially for someone like Oscar, a very good player who’s in an uncomfortable and awkward situation at his current club, there isn’t a whole lot to lose.

Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t want to acknowledge that one of his Spurs players could eventually bolt for China and its mega-millions. For him, football is about idealism: it’s the competition, the “passion” for the sport. For a player to sacrifice those ideals for something as crude as money would be unthinkable. But so long as China continues to offer this absurd amount of money for top players, it will continue to be a draw.

There may come a day when China becomes less a place to offload our unwanted players like Paulinho and more of a threat for Premier League top talent. Along the way, China may develop into a top league that competes with Europe for prestige. Or, that bubble could burst and players will drift back to England, France, Italy, and Spain. The idea of playing in the Premier League and competing at the highest levels of world football is still alluring, but as players like Oscar decide to take a different road in their careers, managers like Pochettino would be wise to start to understand it and not dismiss it as a viable option for top footballing talent.