Manuel Veth –
Axel Witsel and Odil Ahmedov are the latest high profile transfers that have left the Russian Football Premier League for the Chinese Super League. Axel Witsel’s €20 million transfer from Zenit Saint Petersburg to Tianjin Quanjian has been especially remarkable.
The 27-year-old Belgian midfielder had only six months remaining on his contract, and was heavily linked with a move to the Serie A club, Juventus Turin. In fact, when Zenit brought in the Brazilian midfielder, Hernani, in mid-December, it was widely understood as a move intended to ensure that Zenit were prepared for Witsel’s impending transfer to Italy.
A deal for Witsel to Juventus was, in fact, already all but done last summer, but the deal fell apart at the last moment when Zenit failed to sign Miguel Almirón from Club Atlético Lanús—Witsel, who was waiting in a hotel room in downtown Turin, apparently broke down in tears when the deal failed to materialize.
Many players would have faltered, but not Witsel, who was one of the better players (his Whoscored.com score is 7.04) for Zenit in the first half of the Russian Football Premier League season, and in Zenit’s impressive run in the Europa League—where Zenit won five out of six group stage matches.
Axel Witsel will earn €80 million in four years in China
At the same time, however, Witsel seemed determined to complete the move to Italy as a free agent, either this winter or next summer. Juventus were reported to be willing to pay Zenit €6 million, which would have been a good deal for a midfielder who could be signed on a free transfer on July 1.
Then on December 29, 2016, Juventus signed the Venezuelan defensive midfielder Tomas Rincón from Genoa CFC on a loan deal. Rincón’s transfer was perhaps the first indication that Witsel would not join Juventus in the winter transfer window.
Then over the New Year, news emerged that Witsel could be joining a Chinese Super League club. He was first linked with a move to Shanghai SIPG—the club that signed former Zenit star, Hulk, in the summer—but as often seems to be the case with transfers from Europe to China, the media seemed to have trouble identifying the right Chinese club in the emerging transfer story. Futbolgrad learned that the main reason for this is the fact that several Chinese clubs often use the same agents to represent them in negotiations with European clubs.
Then on January 2, Axel Witsel confirmed the deal with Tianjin Quanjian. He also explained his decision to reject a move to Italy: “The Bianconeri have been real gentlemen, and I am very thankful to them. I will always remain a Juventus fan, and I hope that they will win the Champions League. Also, who knows, maybe our paths will cross in the future.”
Witsel will earn €18 million a season, plus €2 million in bonuses, at Tianjin Quanjian over the next four seasons, which is significantly more than the €6 million a season that were offered by Juventus. With those numbers in mind, it is not surprising that Witsel rejected a deal to move to Italy, and it also makes it extremely unlikely that we will see him back in Europe before his deal in China expires.
Axel Witsel and Odil Ahmedov represent a new reality
Witsel’s move from Russia to China was not the only transfer conducted between the Russian Football Premier League and the Chinese Super League, as FC Krasnodar’s Uzbek midfielder Odil Ahmedov moved to Shanghai SIPG in a deal that is understood to be worth €7 million.
The 29-year-old Ahmedov has had a prolific career in the RFPL since first joining Anzhi Makhachkala from Pakhtakor Tashkent in January 2011. In the summer of 2014, he joined FC Krasnodar and, overall, he has played 153 games in the RFPL for both Anzhi and Krasnodar.
Futbolgrad listed Ahmedov as part of the FG Top 30 in the spring of 2014, and the midfielder is perhaps one of the most underrated stars of Russian football. Krasnodar, however, did not have the best start to the season, and injuries meant that Ahmedov had to play out of position for most of the season.
As a result, Ahmedov’s performance dropped this season, as he filled in on the right wing on several occasions. It is, therefore, not a big surprise that Krasnodar, who are limited by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, were willing to part with the Uzbek midfielder, as the €7 million they received would go a long way to strengthen the squad in the winter transfer window.
For Ahmedov, a move to China makes sense, as Chinese Super League clubs are allowed to field four foreign players plus a player born in Asia. For Shanghai SIPG this means that Ahmedov will not take up a foreign player slot and, at the same time, will provide further depth in midfield.
Shanghai SIPG are also coached by former Zenit Saint Petersburg coach, André Villas-Boas, who knows Ahmedov well from his time in Russia.
Axel Witsel shows that Chinese clubs now also target European players
The two transfers are also significant in other ways. The Chinese Super League has increasingly targeted players from South America and, as a result, has powerfully subverted the role of the Russian Football Premier League and the Ukrainian Premier League, as the go to competition for players who want to look for an early payday.
The conflict in Ukraine and sanctions against the Russian Federation, has meant that the oligarch owners of clubs of both countries are currently unable to compete with Chinese Super League clubs, which do not fall under the Financial Fair Play regulations set by UEFA—a fact that has been lamented by owners of Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Axel Witsel’s move to China also shows that Chinese Super League clubs seem to increasingly target European born players. Several managers, and sporting directors have already voiced their concern that the Chinese Super League could become a danger for European football.
Odil Akhmedov also arrived in Shanghai. pic.twitter.com/UIzNQ1BVaI
— TransferMarkt China (@asaikana) January 2, 2017
Yet, as we pointed out in the recent Gegenpressing – Bundesliga Podcast, European top leagues like La Liga and the Bundesliga, which are well equipped to replace departing superstars through their prolific youth academies, and the English Premier League, which is, as Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp rightfully stated, not too dissimilar to the Chinese Super League in terms of wages paid, should not fear the deep pockets of the Chinese Super League.
The Chinese Super League could develop into a threat for post-Soviet leagues
The Axel Witsel, and Odil Ahmedov, transfers, among others, highlight, however, that the story could be different for smaller European leagues. Russia, and Ukraine, in particular, were known to provide South American and Southern European stars a stage on which to represent themselves to European top leagues by playing in the Champions League, and Europa League, while at the same time receiving a salary that was not to dissimilar to what they could earn in European top leagues.
Now, however, more and more players are disregarding the opportunity to play in UEFA competition for a major payday in China. Axel Witsel, for example, will earn €80 million while playing in China for the next four years, which will make it impossible for any European club to sign him in the near future.
Hence, while China will not present a danger for Bundesliga, La Liga, or English Premier League clubs, major teams in the post-Soviet space will certainly feel the impact of the salary bubble that is currently growing in China.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, writer for Bundesliga.com, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.