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Chinese league a ‘safe haven’ for fading Nigerian stars

After sealing a  £20m deadline day move from Premier League strugglers Watford  to Chinese Super League club Changchun Yatai last week,  Odion Ighalo became the third high-profile Nigerian player  behind Mikel Obi and Obafemi Martins  to  seek  greater riches in the Far East.

Martins, 32,  got the ball rolling during the early stages  of the summer transfer window  when he dumped his MLS club Seattle Sounders  to join the exodus of star names to China for a reported  £180,000-a-week deal at Shanghai Shenhua, who boast the services of  former Manchester United forward Carlos Tevez and Colombia’s Fredy Guarín.

Anthony Ujah, 26,  followed suit three months later when he swapped German Bundesliga side Werder Bremen  for Chinese Super League outfit Liaoning Whowin, where he reportedly  trousers  £100,000 per  week.

 

Mikel ended  speculation regarding his future by joining Tianjin TEDA last month, after being  frozen out of first-team affairs at  Chelsea  by  the Blues’ Italian manager Antonio Conte. The  Nigeria captain, who won  two Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, the Champions League and the Europa League, fell down the pecking order at Chelsea  following the arrival of N’Golo Kante from Premier League champions Leicester City in the summer. The 29-year-old  reportedly earns £140,000 a week at Tianjin TEDA.

 

Holland 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup silver medallist Chinedu Obasi joined Chinese second division club Shenzhen from Swedish side AIK  last week on a one-year deal that will, according to sources, see him carting home £110,000 weekly.

 

After scoring 20 goals during Watford’s promotion winning season from   the  second tier of English football  in  2014-15, Ighalo set the Premier League alight during his first season in the elite league by  hitting the back of the net in five consecutive  games.

 

With  17 Premier League goals under his belt at the end of the 2015-16 season, Ighalo was expected to   spark summer transfer scramble between Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.

 

Watford fended off interest from clubs in England, Spain, China  and Italy to keep hold of the 27-year-old striker.

 

But after a barren run of form during the first half of the season, the Hornets  manager Walter Mazzarri was forced  to get rid of the Super Eagles forward, who was no longer a first-choice player for his struggling side.

 

Instead of attracting the interest of  big clubs, Ighalo was only good enough for  Premier League strugglers Crystal  Palace and West Brom during the January transfer window.

 

Ighalo  revealed he wanted to choose one of the sides in order to stay in the Premier League  but his former employers had a  megabucks offer from China for his services and decided to  grab it.

 

Fearing being dragged into the relegation battle, Watford  took  French  forward M’Baye Niang   on loan  from AC Milan and bought Mauro Zarate from  Fiorentina to  help bolster their attack before ejecting  Ighalo, who scored just two goals this term, from Vicarage Road.

 

With Mazzarri under intense pressure from the Hornets’ fans to keep their team in the English top flight,  Ighalo, who had previously had spells with Udinese and Granada, would have risked being frozen out of the first team in favour of the new forwards.

 

Apart from Kante, Mikel  had Nemanja Matic, Nathaniel Chalobah and Cesc Fabregas ahead of him in the pecking order at Stamford Bridge. He could have let his contract run down with the Blues roaming Stamford Bridge, earning his reported £70,000 per week and still  leave for  nothing in the summer.

 

Before Martins moved  for a huge payday in China, the likes of Alex Iwobi and  Kelechi Iheanacho  had transformed  into important players for the Eagles. So, his move to the unrated but cash-rich Chinese Super League didn’t have any  media bedlam in Nigeria.

 

Even when the national selectors bowed to pressure from the media and fans to invite him for international fixtures in the twilight of his career, Martins, who  burst into the international limelight at Italian side Inter Milan in 2002, turned out to be a major flop.

 

Ujah, who  joined Bremen  from Cologne in the summer of 2015, scored  11 goals in 32 goals  to help the Green-Whites escape  relegation last season.

 

After surviving a battle  for a starting role with veteran  forward  Claudio Pizarro, Ujah sank  down the pecking order   with the arrival of Serge Gnabry from Arsenal in the summer. With just four goals to his name, the former Norway-based forward, who has also fallen out of favour  in the Eagles, knew his time at Weserstadion was up.

 

After scoring  only  four goals in 34 games for Schalke 04, Obasi, 30, became one player  no club in Europe’s mainstream needed after being released by Schalke in 2015. He was forced to seek survival in Sweden before Shenzhen, who are managed by former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson,  signed him.

 

The talking point of Nigerian players’ move  has been Mikel’s  reported £140,000 weekly pay at Tianjin TEDA.

 

With his former Chelsea teammates  Ramires  and Oscar earning reported  £200,000-a-week and £400,000 respectively,  it has been suggested that Mikel didn’t sign a good  contract. For a player,  who is the captain of one of the biggest teams in Africa and one of the continent’s most-decorated players, Mikel looks under-priced. In the same league, Tevez, 33,  is believed to earn £615,000-a-week.

 

While Martins, Obasi and Ujah won’t bother many Nigerians much,  the focus will certainly be on how playing in the Chinese league will make Ighalo, who will earn at least £190,000 weekly at Yatai, will improve their performances in the national team.

 

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