Leander Schaerlaeckens: Balance of power shifting as more players join exodus to emerging markets

With more and more players headed to places like India and China, Europe may not be an automatic destination for top soccer talent much longer.
Seydou Keita wants to go to China.

Seydou Keita wants to trade in a spot as the understudy to the grand masters Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona, where he has quietly carved himself out a spot among the 20 best central midfielders in the game, for soccer’s Siberia.

For the last four seasons, Keita has been an important cog in Barcelona’s all-conquering midfield machinery, providing depth during the grueling season. And now he’s allegedly trying to opt out of his contract on the grounds of having played in less than 50 percent of his team’s games last season to sign for the highest bidder in China and double his salary.

Seydou Keita will happily set aside the glory of belonging on one of the game’s all-time great teams and run away with the circus, the newly cash-rich (and purportedly corruption-cleansed) Chinese league.

He isn’t alone.

Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, elite strikers with good years left in their legs, have already gone. Every day rumors emerge of more players pondering their own plunge into the murky waters of this far-away pool filled to the brim with dollar bills.

Last week the Brazilian league similarly scored a coup in landing Clarence Seedorf for Botafogo. Granted, this move had more to do with his wife wanting to return home than a payday, but Seedorf nevertheless joins a slew of South Americans who opted to leave Europe for Brazil's monetary gains.

Even the upstart I-League in India is making noises about throwing some ready cash around to poach a few juicy European names.

Invariably, the players that take the bargain and depart for these economic and footballing emerging markets will be lambasted for being disloyal and lusting for money – however unfair it may be to accuse a short-term professional of seeking out the best deal, as any 9-to-5 employee would.

But that would be to overlook a far more consequential matter. The last European monopoly, in any area, is crumbling. This recently-opened transfer window has underscored, more than anything else, that it is no longer the European football clubs’ birthright to sign the greatest players in the world.


A willingness from elite players to leave Europe’s biggest clubs for Brazil or China or, eventually, India foretells a shifting balance of power in world soccer that could shake its landscape up into something utterly unrecognizable. Players, after all, are the product. If Real Madrid and Juventus and Manchester United and Bayern Munich aren’t the automatic destination for the world’s best talent any longer, the European leagues will dilute and be eclipsed by those of countries with booming economies.

Because the economics paint a stark picture for European football. Brazil, China and India are among the fastest-growing economies in the world whereas those in Europe are saturated and furiously kick their feet just to keep from drowning.

It is only natural for professional sports, and those that play it, to gravitate towards the most cash-rich markets. That’s where clubs will find wealthy backers to bankroll their pet hobbies. It’s been happening in Russia for some time, boosting a traditionally average league into something much bigger. And if it weren’t for foreign sugar daddies flooding the European transfer market with inflated fees, several traditional powerhouse clubs might have already been on the wane.

This is all especially alarming to Major League Soccer, which had been the natural segue into retirement for end-of-career European stars. In the last year, the caliber of signings has slipped from Thierry Henry, David Beckham and Rafa Marquez to Michael Ballack and Alessandro Nesta, who, unlike the aforementioned three, could no longer hang with the best of Europe upon entry into the U.S. This is no representative sample size, but it isn’t inconceivable that under its current financial constraints MLS will end up shopping from the bargain bin of players willing to leave Europe who weren’t snapped up by China or any of its nouveaux riches peers.

Laugh off change when it’s far off on the horizon is easy. Many will scoff at the ambitions of the Chinese or the Brazilians or the Indians, or even the suggestion they might someday control the sport. But make no mistake, the status quo is in real peril.