China – Football’s Next Superpower?

In a time when the Premier League is dominating the transfer market, a new player with enough financial clout to challenge England’s top division is slowly emerging. In this last transfer window, China has started to become a major player in the game with significant moves for players across Europe. During the month of January alone, Chinese clubs spent over $117million on new players signing up the likes of Ivorian midfielder Gervinho from Roma, Colombian forward Fredy Guarin from Inter plus Brazilian midfielder Ramires from Chelsea. They join an already stellar cast in the league including Stephane Mbia, Demba Ba, Diego Tardelli, Asamoah Gyan and Tim Cahill.

Shanghai Shenhua v Beijing Guoan - CSL Chinese Football Association Super League

Former Newcastle and Chelsea forward Demba Ba has settled well into the league (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

That figure has now grow by an additional $45million today with the news that current champions Guangzhou Evergrande have completed the record signing of Atletico Madrid’s Colombian hit man Jackson Martinez. The former Porto striker, who despite being prolific in Portugal has struggled in La Liga passed a medical and will join up with his new teammates later this week at their training camp in Doha. Guangzhou are managed by former Chelsea and Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and currently have several other big name stars in their ranks including former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho and rising Brazilian star Ricardo Goulart. Former AC Milan and Real Madrid star Robinho was also in their ranks but has just been released and is now looking for a new club.

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Jackson Martinez swaps Spain for China in a league record breaking move (Image from Getty)

The league still may be a decade behind their European rivals in terms of quality throughout but the desire to improve the league and the willingness to spend whatever it takes to make that happen is there. Unlike other leagues like in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and now to a lesser extent the US, the focus of a majority of the transfers is to bring players in during their peak years and not after them. All of the major signings in the last window still have a lot to offer in their careers and have time in their side. Guarin and Martinez are 29 whilst Gervinho and Ramires a year younger at 28.  With the window still open for the Chinese League until the end of February, further transfers could go through with the likes of Newcastle’s Cheick Tiote and Atletico’s Fernando Torres top of the list.

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Ramires is another high profile arrival (Image from PA)

What is driving this spending is the explosive demand for soccer in the country. General attendances in the Chinese SuperLeague are growing year over year and advertising dollars are being pumped into the clubs as a result. Added into this the clubs have the backing of the Chinese FA who are encouraging clubs to invest in skillful foreign imports (primarily from Brazil) in the hope that those players will improve the quality of the product with the knock on effect being that it should improve the abilities of Chinese players. That ultimately is the end goal for the Chinese FA who have lofty ambitions – namely to qualify and then win the World Cup in the not so distant future. Its fair to say that currently China has little chance of doing so having failed to qualify for every World Cup bar one (South Korea/Japan 2002) and are struggling to reach the 2018 World cup in Russia. But progress has been made, at least in recognizing that to be successful means that the country has to invest in youth development and help to bring through the next generation of players. Delegates have travelled to Europe in the past to observe how youth academies like the one at Ajax are setup and run with the hopes of replicating that in China.

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The stars of tomorrow – China is investing heavily in youth development in order to be more competitive (Image from Getty)

Growth of the domestic game and improvements in youth development infrastructure can only benefit the Chinese Super League in the long term and with it boost China’s chances of being more competitive on the international stage. With an endless supply of money behind them and a talent pool that is larger than any other country in the world, it’s hard to bet against China from achieving its long-term goals and eventually lifting the World Cup.

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Brazil Recovery On Track As Copa Approaches

BrazilThe 2014 World Cup semi final still haunts Brazil. The humiliating defeat at the hands of eventual winners Germany was an eye opener for a team so confident of success in the tournament that they became blinded towards the truth. Despite having arguably one of the best players in the world in Neymar, the Brazil squad selected for the World Cup in their home land was less than inspiring. Luiz Filipe Scolari’s side were good on paper but lacked the creative spark or cutting edge of previous Brazil world cup teams. No Robinho or Ronaldinho to add an extra dimension to their play and no Romario or Ronaldo like striker to fire them to glory. All in all it was a side built for one purpose – to support Neymar. The talented 22 year old was given a free role, allowed to roam and create and basically do what he does best. With that freedom, Neymar shone picking up four goals on route to the quarter finals and placing himself in the running for player of the tournament. But a bad clumsy challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in the last few minutes of their clash in the quarters ruled Neymar out for the rest of the tournament. Heading into the semi’s Brazil were like a chicken with its head cut off. Unable to function and without Neymar to lead the way, Brazil were torn apart by a rampant Germany hungry for success. The 7-1 score line was flattering to Germany but in truth it could have been more. Their pride severely dented, Brazil’s national team was in tatters.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup (Image from Getty)

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup (Image from Getty)

Two months later a fresh looking Brazil side took to the field to play Colombia in a friendly. Led out by new manager Dunga returning for a second spell as national boss, Brazil looked nervous yet prepared to start to rewrite the wrongs that had happened months previously. Their ranks had been changed dramatically with several key players from the World Cup notably absent. Striker Fred, who suffered the most due to his poor showing at the World Cup, had retired from international football aged 30 whilst Julio Cesar, Jo, Hulk, Maxwell and Paulinho all were left out in favour of fresh blood. In came Diego Tardelli, Everton Ribeiro, Philippe Coutinho and a recall for Robinho to add options to Brazil’s approach. The inclusion of Atletico Madrid defender Miranda was also welcomed by the fans and Brazilian media, many of whom felt that he should have been part of the World Cup squad in the first place and not have been excluded. His addition helped to solidify a shaky looking defence, even if it meant breaking up the much hyped PSG duo of David Luiz and Thiago Silva.  The match against Colombia finished in a 1-0 win with newly appointed captain Neymar sealing the win with an 83rd minute free kick. That nervous win would kick start a run of friendly victories that has now stretched to eight in a row. Brazil are back so it would seem and with a bang. Or are they?

Yes they have played against some good sides (notably France, Chile, Argentina and Colombia) scoring 18 times and conceding just twice but in a majority of the games Brazil have labored away to get the win. This may be due to Dunga crafting the team in his vision – less flair, more workhorse like in their performances. Brazil is more disciplined than before preferring to play through teams on the deck rather than looking for adventurous but risky long balls. Neymar in his new role as captain has a more disciplined approach too, less free to roam the pitch and more focused on linking the play and inspiring the team with some quick setup work or a shot on goal. The results of this change have been evident with the Barcelona player scoring eight times in as many games, including a self demolition of Japan when he scored four goals. Unlike during the World Cup though, the pressure on Neymar as his country’s only real goal threat has been lifted with several new players drafted in to ease the burden. In particular, the emergence of Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino has been a massive boost to Brazil’s attacking options with the 23 year old playing a significant role as provider and finisher of some of Brazil’s best moves in recent games. Despite having only four caps to date, Firmino has scored two fantastic goals and looks set to cement his place in Dunga’s long term plans as long as his form continues for both club and country.

Brazil’s fresh start under Dunga has been impressive to date but the biggest challenges await with the Copa America the first of them. Due to be played in Chile in June, Dunga will know that only a strong performance and perhaps a win will be enough to mend the bridges with the Brazil fans that were so violently destroyed by that defeat by Germany. The Copa is far from an easy competition to win, arguably tougher than the World Cup so Brazil will need to be on their best form to be triumphant. Brazil face Peru, Colombia and Venezuela in the group stage starting June 14th with progression expected. Failure to progress is not an option open for Dunga especially with the heartache from the World Cup still fresh in Brazilian hearts and minds.

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Deconstructing Brazil – What Went Wrong

Down and Out - Brazil crashed out of the World Cup in stunning fashion (Image from AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)With the dust now settled on what was a stunning World Cup, the inquest into what went wrong for Brazil can now begin. Whilst other teams like England, Spain and Italy exited earlier than expected and before Brazil, it was the nature of the home teams implosion in the semi finals against eventual champions Germany and their failure to recover for the irrelevant third place playoff game that has many talking. Expectations were high going into the tournament off the back of winning the World Cup warm up event, the Confederations Cup. A spectacular demolition of Spain in the final by 3-0 lifted the hopes of a nation and set about creating a false dawn ahead of the World Cup. How could they not win? With Neymar playing well, the defence solid as a rock and Fred finishing top goal scorer, Brazil fans started to plan the victory parade before the World Cup had even began. After a group stage that taught us little except for Neymar’s brilliance, Brazil went into the knock out stages with more belief that ever before. But after crashing out in the semi finals to Germany by a score of 7-1 and then throwing away the third place playoff against Holland, many are wondering exactly what went wrong?

World Cup winners, Germany  (Image from PEDRO UGARTEPEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

World Cup winners, Germany
(Image from PEDRO UGARTEPEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Over reliance on Neymar

Neymar’s brilliance was on show from day one but so was Brazil’s apparent over reliance of their boy genius. Even from the first kick of the ball against Croatia, it appeared as though the tactic was simply give the ball to Neymar. The Barcelona star was at the heart of every play that Brazil made and in the beginning it was mesmerizing to watch. But as the tournament progressed, it gradually turned into predictable. Oscar, the creator of many of Brazil’s best moves cried out for the ball but his teammates instead chose to pass the ball to the heavily marked Neymar. The once unpredictable Brazil had become routine and beating them became obvious – nullify the threat of Neymar and the game is there for the taking. Brazil had little else in the locker – no Kaka to turn to for inspiration, no Robinho to add some flair or Ronaldinho for that matter to provide some brilliance. They may have breezed through the group stage but in the knock out rounds, Brazil dangled too close to the edge for comfort. Both Chile and Colombia tried to shut down Neymar and managed fairly successfully though tight marking although the latter took that too literally. A late and high challenge by Juan Zuniga ended Neymar’s World Cup and with it Brazil’s Plan A. Unfortunately a Plan B was not in the bank for them to turn to meaning defeat against Germany was inevitable.

An over reliance on Neymar cost Brazil dearly  (Image from Getty)

An over reliance on Neymar cost Brazil dearly
(Image from Getty)

The £50million mistake?

As a centre back, David Luiz is vulnerable. Against Germany his defending was laughable, his positioning more so. Against the Dutch his attitude to amend for previous mistakes was commendable but again his positioning let him down. Why a centre back was on the left wing with his team trailing by two goals was anyone’s guess. Too often Luiz was anywhere but at centre back leaving Thiago Silva stranded. Its easy to blame Luiz for all seven goals against Germany and that would be unfair as the entire team minus Oscar were culpable but against Holland the argument is vindicated. For the first goal, Luiz was found wandering at the half way line when the ball was played to Robben who was then dragged back by Thiago Silva for a penalty which Van Persie duly converted. Holland’s second came directly from Luiz who chose to clear the ball with his head into the middle of the pitch and onto Daley Blind’s left toe rather than head it out of towards the side line. And to cap off his bumbling display, he was again found out of position for Holland’s third stranded at left back which forced Fernandinho into defending against Janmaat’s cross. Unfortunately Scolari’s decision to place his faith in David Luiz as a centre back failed miserably and the player looked out of his depth and badly out of position. Luiz secured his dream transfer to Paris Saint-Germain for a record fee of £50 million just days before the tournament began with the view to him partnering Thiago Silva at the back next season but surely now even they must be having second thoughts?

Luiz looked lost against Germany and too often out of position  (Image from PA)

Luiz looked lost against Germany and too often out of position
(Image from PA)

Lack of options upfront

When naming his squad, Scolari chose to name only two out and out strikers – Fred and Jo out of a possible five. The other three positions went to winger Bernard, the all-rounder Neymar and forward turn winger Hulk. Playing with one upfront and Neymar in a floating role, Brazil and Scolari put a lot of faith in one striker in particular, Fred. The 30 year old Fluminense front man was rightly picked as his starting number nine after an impressive season with his club and an even more impressive Confederations Cup which helped to silence many of his critics. But unfortunately for Brazil and Scolari, on the world’s biggest stage Fred was posted missing. Ineffective in the group stages, misfiring in the knockout rounds Fred at times looked more like a liability than a goal threat. Foolishly Scolari kept faith but to no avail as Fred finished the tournament with only a single goal to his name. Why Scolari stuck through him is up for debate but looking at the other options available to him may give the answer. Substitute Jo may be effective in the National Championship but against tough tackling defenders, he became the player who badly failed at Manchester City all those years ago. Bernard, for all his tricks on the ball, is not an out and out striker but yet was thrown into the mix against a rampant Germany with the hopes of scoring a goals or two. As for Hulk, the player who gained his name from his formidable physique and love of the green skinned monster, was more timid than ferocious during the World Cup leading to many questioning if his nickname was indeed appropriate.

Fred's ineffective performances up front cost Brazil (Image from AFP)

Fred’s ineffective performances up front cost Brazil (Image from AFP)

Failed to learn lessons of the past

Brazil’s rich history in the World Cup is nothing to scoff at with a record five World Cups already in their locker. Learning how to win from them is one thing but learning from the mistakes of past failed Brazil teams is another. Scolari knew how to win the World Cup having won it before in 2006 but the fear of losing it never crossed his mind. He should have looked at past teams like that of the 1982 Brazil World Cup squad that went to Spain and learned from their mistakes. After all the similarities are painfully obvious. Clear favourites leading up to the tournament, they feared no one and rightly so as they were arguably one of the best Brazil sides never to win the World Cup. With a squad that included the ever talented Zico alongside the likes of Socrates, Eder, Serginho and Junior, Brazil ran through their group stage with ease which excited the Brazilian people into believing that this would be their year. But like the 2014 squad, Brazil crumbled in the knock out rounds with some startling similarities. Like Neymar, Zico was Brazils star player and the one who they looked to when they needed inspiration. He too was targeted by opposition numbers for rough treatment and almost missed the crucial tie against Italy after a horrendous challenge against Argentina threated to end his World Cup. But Zico managed to play against Italy but could do little to prevent Brazil from crashing out. Upfront Serginho, who had been in superb form for Sao Paulo in the Brazilian Championship in the run up to the tournament was misfiring and with no real option on the bench, Brazil were struggling in front of goal. Added into that Italy exposed Brazil’s defensive frailties on a too frequent basis for the game to end in their favour. Paolo Rossi ran riot with Italy eventually winning 3-2 and knocking Brazil out of the World Cup.  The harsh lessons that head coach Tele Santana learned from this experience should have been glaring warning signs for Scolari but for whatever reason he chose to ignore them.

Scolari could have learned something from the Brazil 1982 team who lost to eventual winners Italy  (Image from Getty)

Scolari could have learned something from the Brazil 1982 team who lost to eventual winners Italy
(Image from Getty)

Why he picked a squad with so few options upfront and little to no support characters like Kaka or Ronaldinho that could shoulder some of the burden from Neymar is unknown. Or why indeed he placed so much faith in David Luiz at centre back despite having a more than reliable alternative in Dante is even more baffling. Ultimately it was Scolari’s decision and one that has cost him his job with the CBF terminating his employment last week along with his coaching staff. Former Brazil manager Dunga and Corinthians manager Tite are rumoured to be the favourites to take over and regardless of which coach gets the job, both will look towards younger players like Oscar as they rebuild the Brazil squad. One man he wont be able to call upon is Fred who decided to retire from international football after being made into a proverbial scapegoat by many in the Brazilian media.  After the collapse in 1982, Brazilian football took a long time to recover focusing more on getting a result rather than playing attractive flowing football, the Brazilian way. For the sake of the world game and for the watching public, many will hope that history does not repeat itself and that Brazil can bounce back from this and show the world once more that they are a team to be feared in international football.

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German Blitz Brings Brazil Crashing Back To Reality

Blitz complete - A shell-shocked Brazil survey the damage (Image from FIFA via Getty)No one could have predicted it and few could believe what they were watching. In the crowds, Neymar sat dejected, his dream diminishing before his eyes. Brazilian supporters fought to hold back their tears as they watched Germany rip apart Brazil in a rampant opening 30 minutes of their World Cup Semi Finals match. During spells Germany looked like they had double the players on the pitch than their stunned opponents as they raced into a five nil lead. Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari sat emotionless on the sidelines, his tactical plans lying in tatters by his feet as a hush rolled over the Brazilian fans in the stands. How could his team possibly come back from this?

Brazil fans couldn't believe what they were seeing (Image from AFP)

Brazil fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing
(Image from AFP)

To be fair in the second half Brazil looked margainly better with the no show Hulk replaced at haf time by Ramires. But Germany still dominated and won the half 2-1 ending the game as a record 7-1 winner. Humiliation complete, Germany advance to Sundays final to face either Argentina or Holland and probably for the first time ever Brazil want Argentina in the final. Not because they would rather see them win than Germany but fear further humilation in the pointless 3rd/4th place play off match with they are now forced to play. But like that game, it’s irrelevant with the main prize snatched away as Brazil crashed out of their own World Cup in stunning fashion.

Should Kaka been part of the squad?  (Image from Getty)

Should Kaka been part of the squad?
(Image from Getty)

Germany were quite simply superb, with a passing and finishing game that many would be proud of. In the ranks, World Cup stars featured prominently. Thomas Muller added to his impressive goal tally so far with one whilst Toni Kroos showed his growing value with a thunderous brace. But the applause must go to 36 year old Miroslav Klose who scored the goal that puts his name permanently into the World Cup record books as the all time leading goalscorer with 16. He overtakes former Brazilian striker Ronaldo who finished his career on 15 World Cup goals. Ironically be overtaken by countryman Thomas Muller who at 24 already has 10 goals to his name. Having scored 5 goals in his first World Cup in 2010 and 5 so far in this World Cup its not hard to see why Klose is looking nervously over his shoulder.

Klose scores his record breaking 16th goal  (image from Getty)

Klose scores his record breaking 16th goal
(image from Getty)

Neither Holland or Argentina will realish their chances against a Germany in this kind of form. Brazil on the other hand look ripe for the picking, battered black and blue by Germany, their pride in the gutter. As the squad sulked off the pitch at the end of a tiring 90 minutes that never looked like ending with tears pouring down their faces, Brazil look like a shell of their former selfs. Yes they missed Neymar and probably more importantly Thiago Silva but this mauling was coming. Over reliance on the boy genius from Barca hurt them badly when injury occured. No plan b hurt more. A lack of a Kaka, Robinho or even Ronaldinho option was clear as Scolari puzzled over what to do to repair the damage. Oscar was the only shining light in what was a dismal performance from the entire team in particular captain for the day David Luiz who made several key errors during the 90 minutes. Few in Brazil will watch Sundays final and fewer Saturdays playoff. Boos and jeers helped the players from the pitch yesterday and nobody can blame them. Brazil failed to show up, and pay the penalty for it. Germany move on to the final and are 90 mins away from destiny of their own making. For Brazil, it’s back to the drawing board once again and reflection time for what went wrong during the tournament everyone thought they would win.

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Split Focus Leads To Palmeiras Relegation

It was billed as a make or break match for Palmeiras. The São Paulo club needed a win against Flamengo to remain in the league whilst Flamengo were playing for pride only in the match. In the end, Flamengo were the only team that came away happy from the match after the two sides thrashed out a 1-1 draw. Palmeiras, who led the match until an agonising late equalizer thar sealed their fate, how now been relegated from Brazil’s top league for the second time in 10 years. Palmeiras opened the scoring on Sunday with a long-range shot by substitute  striker Vinicius, but Vagner Love’s late goal dashed hopes of a reprieve, in what was already a tense match. Crowd trouble before and after the match brought back memories for some of similar scenes when Argentinian legends Rover Plate were relegated a few seasons ago. In the lead up to the match, the Palmeiras players and coaching staff had been the subject of death threats from fans as they slowly started to realise that the possibility of dropping out of the league could become a reality. Indeed results against Fluminense and Botofogo in previous weeks, when Palmeiras threw away good leads and ended up losing and drawing the matches respectively, confirmed what the fans were dreading.

Palmeiras players face life in Campeonato Brasileiro Série B next season

Palmeiras are one for Brazil’s most illustrious of clubs, having won the most national titles (11) and are current defending Brazilian Cup champions, but this season has not been impressive by any stretch of the imagination. In 36 games, they have only managed to win 9 games, drawing 7 and losing the remaining 20. Goals have been hard to come by, only notching 37 in the entire season (roughly 1 a match) but its their defensive record and goals conceded that has led to their demise – 49 goals this season (1.5 per match). So how did this happen? Nobody predicted this fate in 2010 when the Alviverde (Green and White) welcomed back for the second time legend Luiz Felipe Scolari as head coach. Scolari, who coached the club from 1997 to 2000, came back to the club after having spent the last 10 years coaching a variety of nations and clubs such as Brazil, Portugal, Chelsea and most recently FC Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan. He is remembered fondly in Brazil after leading his country to the 2002 World Cup, despite many critics blasting his tactics and classifying the win as a fluke.

Returning to Palmeiras in 2010 he led them to Copa do Brasil success that year with influential captain Marcos Assunção and goalscorer Luis Fabiano leading the charge. But it was the focus on this cup that led to eventual relegation. Scolari rested several key players in the run up to various cup matches resulted in valuable points being dropped. After the cup success, focus shifted back to the league but by that point Palmeiras was already sitting in the lower half of the table and struggling for form. Scolari eventually left his position and was replaced by Gilson Kleina but he couldn’t turn around the club and eventually conceded relegation in the 1-1 draw this sunday.

The lesson to be learned from this Palmeiras story is that focusing on one tournament can lead to disaster  in another. Palmeiras, desperate to taste success once again, pushed all their energy into the cup competition and took its eye of the league. Although they did win the cup, their squad did not have the depth of talent required to cope with the demands of both and valuable points were dropped. Scolari, who had a spell at mega rich Chelsea in the English Premiership is partly responsible for this failure as he controls selection and transfers but its the players themselves that should take most of the heat as they got caught up in cup fever and forgot that their most important task was staying in the league.