Last summer, in one of the transfer window’s most audacious moves, Jiangsu Suning almost signed Gareth Bale.
The Chinese Super League club, managed by Cosmin Olaroiu, had sought to recruit the Real Madrid forward and made a concrete offer, a transfer believed to have the potential to transform football in the country. Bale was reportedly offered $1.25 million (Dh4.6m) per week. Yet the deal never materialised.
According to Olaroiu, Jiangsu manager since March 2018, a heavy pre-season defeat to rivals Atletico Madrid - a 7-3 loss in New Jersey - precipitated its collapse.
"It was very close," he tells The National at the team's training camp in Dubai. "The club agreed with his agent, his agent was there. We agreed with Madrid and in the last month – I don't know what happened there, they lose some friendly games by a big score – Madrid changed their mind.
“First they said they would release him and we would have to pay his salary, then suddenly they said ‘no, you have to pay for the transfer’. And paying the transfer and his salary was a little bit over the budget and so we looked for another player.
“But, actually, I know that it was done 90 per cent in the evening, and then in the morning everything changed. But Real Madrid, not us.”
Jiangsu will not revisit the transfer, given the financial limitations later imposed by the league, a provision that in theory prevents a club spending beyond their means. Bale or not, Olaroiu welcomes the move.
“It’s good, so we don’t just talk about three or four teams and another 12 or 13,” he says. “We have to talk about all the teams. The line between the first and the last team is not so big; it’s tiny.”
Given the fine lines, players are of course pivotal. Jiangsu are the closest club to breaking into the Super League’s top three – Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guoan occupy those slots – but have not spent to the same extent as those above them. They have added, among others, former Italy striker Eder and ageing Brazil defender Miranda, both from Inter Milan. Champions Guangzhou, for example, took back Paulinho from Barcelona, while SIPG boast Brazilians Oscar and Hulk. Last summer they signed Marko Arnautovic from West Ham United.
“We need to improve the squad,” Olaroiu says. “We are near to them. We played against them, we beat them, they beat us. We need one step to go to fight with them.
“But it always depends on the club and the potential and what they have planned to do. To be in the top three is fantastic, but this needs sacrifice from everyone. From the players, the coaches and the management.
“We improved, but we have the same team from when I came until now. It’s difficult to improve a lot; it’s always limited. You have the same players and you’re going to improve their abilities, their strength and their mental power, but it’s not enough.
“We didn’t actually take players we expected and at this moment we have to deal with what we have.”
Olaroiu understands what it takes to succeed. The Romanian remains one of the most decorated managers in UAE football history, having enjoyed trophy-laden spells with Al Ain and Al Ahli between 2011 and 2018 before leaving the Emirates for Jiangsu.
Battling relegation with Fabio Capello the season before he arrived, he quickly guided the club to fifth the following year. Last season, they finished fourth.
Clearly, Olaroiu is enjoying managing in another country, thriving in a more competitive environment to what he experienced in the UAE. The large attendances are a plus: last season, Jiangsu attracted to home matches on average 27,500 fans; Guangzhou Evergrande, the country’s grandest club, averaged almost 46,000.
It is one of many differences he has encountered between China and the UAE.
“Two different countries, two different approaches, different cultures,” Olaroiu says. “They’re in the process of improving and spend a lot of money bringing very good players, very good coaches.
“That’s why it was special for me when I chose to go there, because in any game you have a competition, you’re going to play against top players in the world and you’re going to face the biggest managers.
“Because the teams are strong and all the teams have very big and expensive players, and good coaches, each game you play is a final. I was talking with my staff and there for us every game is Al Ain-Al Ahli.
“It’s always a good competition, and for me, a competition to prove I can do it also there. We took a team that was in a difficult situation: one year before they fight against relegation until the last games and now they are in the top four. And we hope we can make the step to be in the top three. But this depends on us, staff and players.”
For Olaroiu, the path between China and the UAE could still cross. He misses the Emirates, but retains many friends, and a residence, in Dubai. The time difference with his current home makes it difficult to watch Arabian Gulf League matches, although he still follows the results.
There have been offers to return. Typically, whatever major managerial job becomes available in the UAE, whether at club or national-team level, Olaroiu’s name is never far from consideration.
“Maybe one day I will come back,” he says.
You’d imagine, though, that the role would have to suit completely. Now 50, Olaroiu has enjoyed significant success as a manager: the Romanian league title, in 2005/06, with Steaua Bucharest; the cups with Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia and Al Sadd in Qatar; the twin league titles and other trophies with both Al Ain and Al Ahli; the runner-up finish in the 2015 Asian Champions League, when Al Ahli reached the final seemingly against the odds.
They were the first UAE club to contest the continental showpiece in a decade, and the second overall, but were denied the crown by an agonising 1-0 aggregate defeat to Evergrande. Patently, the disappointment drives Olaroiu now.
“My target is to win the Champions League,” he says. “I will do everything to win it. I won many leagues, many competitions. I want to win a big one, an international competition.
“I was very near with Al Ahli, but it was something fantastic because Ahli is not a usual favourite to win a competition like the Champions League and they did very well.
“Even the final, Guangzhou was a tremendous team at that time. I don’t forget that moment and I will try to go back there. We had chances. We were near. Next time I think we can make it.
“That gives me more motivation, because I don’t achieve that. We were with a team that nobody expects to be there and we were very near. But I expect in the future to get it.”
Olaroiu’s immediate future is less certain. The outbreak of the coronavirus has adversely affected preparations for the start of the Super League: the new campaign, initially scheduled to begin this Saturday, has been postponed indefinitely after the Chinese Football Association suspended all professional football in the country.
Originally, the club had expected to train in Dubai throughout January and early February and then depart, as they have done through their association with locally based It’s Just Football since Olaroiu’s appointment two years ago. It is a by-product of his strong links to the emirate.
“We have to deal with this, but we have to also take care of the players,” Olaroiu says. “The players have family back home; they’re worried about this.
“I hope everyone will be OK, and they will find a solution to pass this moment quickly and everything to be fine again.”