Any day now, Borussia Dortmund’s Gabonese super striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could sign in China with Tianjin Quanjian.
At 28, the French-born forward is one of the hottest properties on the market, also pursued at various times by Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, in spite of his towering price tag of $90 million or so – just for the transfer, and not counting his salary, image rights fees or bonuses.
But the rumor that he’ll opt for China over any of those European legacy clubs persists. He apparently stands to make well over $30 million a year there. Nothing is concrete, and the only apparent certainty is that he will leave Dortmund, where he came into his own the last four years – with 79 goals in the last two seasons alone – and emerged as one of the world’s best strikers after a meandering career with an early false start with AC Milan.
Aubameyang has declared himself “ready for new adventures” in a fairly uncryptic Instagram tweet.
Yet this would-be decision to head to China, which would make it the Chinese Super League’s most meaningful acquisition in a half-decade full of high-profile signings because of Aubameyang’s recent performance and desirability, doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.
They seem to feel that Aubameyang somehow owes it to his talent and to some kind of greater good to play at the highest possible level during his prime. It’s a strange sort of logic, although it’s unassailable that the soccer in China isn’t yet as good as it is in Spain, England, France or indeed Germany. (Then again, if better players don’t head over there, how is the CSL ever to get better?)
Yet players who leave for China, usually seizing on an offer that’s higher than anybody else’s, are implicitly judged for cashing in. Leaving Europe for anything but a final payday is considered to break some kind of unspoken covenant of conduct and career planning for a professional soccer player. As if the European game doesn’t revolve entirely around money. A “premature” departure is lamented as a waste, as if a prime is indentured to Europe’s top leagues, even if that means taking less money than the market will bear.
This general and broadly-shared sentiment tends to remain implied but unsaid. It’s a kind of quiet criticism, a condescension about any soccer league that isn’t European that’s hinted at but never verbalized in so many words.
Except for when somebody misses the memo and blurts it all out, like former Ireland and Liverpool striker John Aldridge in his Irish Independent column.
First, Aldridge called Aubameyang a “sporting mercenary.” Let’s pause here to remember that the word ‘profession’ is embedded in the word ‘professional’ and thereby definitionally makes the entire industry one of mercenaries — and that’s perfectly okay.
Having set out on this shaky limb, Aldridge forges forward. Of the Chinese league, he says, “I cannot understand why any serious sportsman would want to go and play in that third-rate league.”
“Okay, we all like money and Aubameyang will be getting a lot of it very quickly if he joins Tianjin Quanjian, but he is basically selling his soul to the highest bidder by moving to China,” Aldridge carries on. “It seems as if money is more important to Aubameyang than sporting ambition and for that reason, Liverpool may have had a lucky escape by not signing him.”
Here, the former Red finally circles around to the crux of his real beef: that Aubameyang may prefer China over England, and his own former club no less. Never mind that a move to reunite with his former Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp was never a concrete option and that those two apparently didn’t have the best working relationship in the past. Which is to say nothing of the enormous transfer fee required for a player who is likely over the halfway mark in his prime.
“Playing in the Champions League, challenging for the Premier League title, working with a great manager like Klopp and playing in front of incredible fans at Anfield every week should be what any footballer wants,” Aldridge drones on. “I would have walked over hot coals to get a chance to play for Liverpool and while I wouldn’t expect a foreign player to have that kind of passion and desire, anyone who is willing to move to China at the age of 28 is not worth talking about.”
“Aubameyang might be able to buy a few nice boats or fancy cars after a couple of years in the Chinese Super League,” Aldridge concludes, finally. “But I bet he will look back on his career one day and think he made a mistake.
Maybe consider a different scenario. Aubameyang forgoes the payday in China – assuming he would have gone only for financial reasons, which is very much his right – and goes to, say, Liverpool instead. Even though, again, that was probably never going to happen with or without the offer from China.
Imagine a decade from now, or whenever, Aubameyang runs out of money. Because he made bad investments or he was poorly advised or too many people relied on him or the market crashed or he was simply unable to properly manage his finances. The bigger mistake would surely have been to leave money on the table than to pass on some perceived legacy-defining transfer.
The point of work is to earn money that you can exchange for goods and services. And soccer, to professional soccer players, is work. Taking less money than you can is sort of antithetical to that. Especially when you’re 28 and likely about to sign your last major contract.
This isn’t to pick on Aldridge. He’s hardly alone in holding his bad opinion. For decades, the narrative about professional athletes has centered around their outsized salaries and how they ought to show loyalty to their employers – who would not repay such favor, when it comes to it – before worrying about earning. For some reason, because their salaries are high, they have not the right to earn and capitalize on the hot market for their rare and fleeting gifts.
Held to the harsh light of logic, none of the arguments for an athlete taking less money just to prove a nebulous point about values and adhering to an undefined code stand up. They all boil down to some kind of prejudice or superiority complex. England is a fine place to make your money as a soccer player. So is China. The checks will clear in both places. And Aubameyang will likely score goals and make an impact in either one.