Oscar’s Chinese purgatory offers players cautionary tale in Saudi boom era

There was a huge boost this week for Saudi hopes of bringing Kylian Mbappé to the Pro League as news emerged that Mbappé had refused even to meet Al-Hilal officials in Paris.

Hmm. This feels like progress. Hissy fits, power struggles, a high-profile snubbing in a fancy hotel suite. It’s basically like he’s already playing for them. This is a boardroom snubbing that seems to say, hey, I could work with these guys.

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All that remains from here is the emergence of some unsourced disparaging comments about fellow Al-Hilal players and a contractual insistence that Mbappé gets to hold up the lighted subs boards on the touchline on matchdays and we could be juggling balls in a backward cap at the Blue Jewel stadium some time next week.

In reality there is of course some succour to be taken in the fact the most exhilarating player on the planet has made it clear – quite, quite clear – that he has no desire to throw away his prime years acting as a glove puppet for an oil-rich dictatorship, to betray the purity of the PSG vision, and all the rest.

Although frankly even trying to convert this miasma of idiocy and greed into a functioning sentence feels like being tied to a chair made entirely of death and forced to drown slowly in an ever-deepening pool of end times, while an elite Swiss watchmaker tattoos the words Ici c’est Vision 2030 across the inside of your eyelids with the sharp point of his bone saw.

Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez joined the exodus to Saudi Arabia, signing with Al-Ahli for £30m on Friday. Photograph: Reuters

But the fact remains the Saudi Public Investment fund is already a major player in the European transfer summer. And there are deeper layers to this new gravitational centre, not to mention another opportunity to revisit one of the great cautionary tales, the story of the 25-year-old footballer who did go to meet the men in the room, and who never actually came back.

Any old excuse, on this page, to take another look at Oscar, once of Chelsea and Brazil, still only 31 years old, and still the most extreme example of the bizarre social experiment currently being enacted, the perils and rewards of standing too close to the exposed reactor core that is elite modern football. You who turn the wheel and look to windward, consider Oscar, who was once tall and handsome as you.

Currently things are on an upswing. Oscar’s Shanghai Port extended their lead at the top of the CSL table with a comprehensive defeat of Cangzhou Mighty Lions. He is the most influential midfielder in the league this season, destined for a second CSL league title, but still giving off powerful self-imposed hostage video energy, even as his career earnings tick up towards the £350m mark, the only real note of significance in one of the strangest careers in the history of all sports everywhere.

This is a story best told from between the lines. Even Oscar’s social media feed has that gripping sense of trapped energy, of something glazed and lost. Here is Oscar cradling a Lego model of the Camp Nou in some sealed hyper-luxe interior and smiling like a sad, frightened cartoon panda. Here he is meeting a famous ping pong champion and playing mournful ping pong on a tiny table.

Here is Oscar quietly pleading for help via a series of generic Champions League TV style quotes. “I am very happy here. I really enjoy playing here. I have no regrets. I am also very happy here.”

But also: “If I could go back to the Premier League, that would be really cool.” Plus: “I like Italy, I have an Italian passport.” And also: “Of course it is a dream to come back to Chelsea.”

Last year Oscar tried and failed to join Barcelona, even though joining Barcelona was essentially impossible because of his own status as a toxic balance sheet liability. He posted photos of himself in a Flamengo shirt and flew to Rio to agree personal terms on a fantasy move that couldn’t happen, like a kid parping away on his plastic steering wheel in the back seat of the family motorcade.

Oscar celebrates scoring Chelsea’s third goal during the Champions League match against Maccabi Tel-Aviv in 2015.

Oscar won the Premier League and the Europa League during his time at Chelsea. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Because of course this is Oscar, prisoner of money, and he knows, deep down, that he’s going nowhere. Oscar signed for Shanghai in 2016, a notable name in the early rush towards this new and bounteous frontier. He made £24m in his first year in China (see: the big Calvin Klein pants deal). The key moment arrived in 2019 when he signed a new four-year deal shortly before the CSL was reeled in by the government, a salary cap imposed with all future deals limited to £2.7m a year.

But not Oscar, who would earn about £150m if he could stick it out to 2024, the last pirate left on the ship, bracketed by a freak of timing and overspend with the gods, the overlords, your Messis and your Ronaldos, the highest-paid players of this or any other era.

To add to the oddity Oscar is a wonderful footballer. At Chelsea he won the Premier League and the Europa League, creating a bespoke role as zippy creative runner and high-end midfield ferret, dilute Mesut Özil with an infusion of Willian-heart. He scored the weirdest World Cup semi-final goal ever, the consolation one in Brazil’s 7-1 defeat, and still made the team of the tournament aged 22.

He fell out with Antonio Conte, might have headed off to the hardline collectivist regime of Atlético Madrid, but preferred the look of China. And six and a half years later his public pronouncements continue to circle around the fact he simply couldn’t refuse this, that it is simply his duty to toil away under one of the greatest contractual mistakes in sporting history, a £350m state-sanctioned oversight, the football equivalent of a misallocated railway contract or an abandoned power plant site.

There are probably two things worth saying about this. As the issue of why footballers do things becomes ever more urgent, the precise extent of the moral and emotional weight they should carry, it seems useful to consider the case of Oscar, which tells us: don’t expect footballers to solve our shared moral contortions, or even, at times, to understand the forces that shape their careers.

Related: Kylian Mbappé: Al-Hilal submit world-record €300m bid for PSG forward

Jordan Henderson deserves to be reviled for his laughable hypocrisy over LGBTQ+ rights, the grandstanding as a guardian of liberal values that simply evaporated at the first gleam of those sweet, sweet generational riches. But to become overly bogged down in one celebrity footballer’s moral weakness is to miss the bigger picture.

Footballers are often passengers in their own lives, as Oscar appears to be, circled by dependents, interests, debts to be serviced. These are in the end simply details in the show, human product, a part of the image washing machine even as we rage at their inability to be as good at the old moral leadership as they are at dead-ball situations and third-man runs. Look away from the famous person. Someone else is going to have to solve this.

In the meantime the world has now come to Oscar, still out there floating in his tin can high above the world, doing his Camp Nou Lego, prisoner of the insatiable human desire for greater wealth than any individual could ever use or need or want; a kind of captivity that felt like an anomaly in its own time, but now appears to be very much the present and the future.

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