China, a viable option for Brazilian footballers

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published March 27, 2017

With the generous salaries and financial rewards on offer in the Chinese Super League, a host of Brazilian footballers sees the CSL as a viable option compared to the European leagues.

Brazil’s defender Marquinhos (L) vies for the ball with Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier football match at the Centenario stadium in Montevideo, on March 23, 2017.
(Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images / DANTE FERNANDEZ)

Last week Thursday, Brazil and Uruguay battled one more time, this time in a 2018 World Qualifying football match. Brazil-Uruguay encounters have always resulted in a climax, with the zenith being the 1950 World Cup final, which saw Uruguay hoist their second World Cup title. That 1950 victory in the stadium of football, the Maracanã stadium, Brazil’s home turf, before the loyal Brazil fans, was against the odds and a significant blow to Brazil’s hope of World Cup glory. Thankfully – eight years later – that blow was quickly forgotten, after Brazil snatched the first of their five World Cup titles.

Last Thursday, at the Estadio Centenario, home of Uruguay’s first World Cup glory in 1930 and a venue which has been a nightmare location for Brazil, Brazil thumped a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay 4-1 to all but secure their spot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The hero of the night for Brazil was not the usual suspect, Neymar, its captain, but Paulinho, once a forgotten man, who scored a superlative hat-trick.

Paulinho scored a hat-trick for Brazil in their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Uruguay on March 23, 2017.
(Photo credit: AP)

Friday morning after the match, I read with peaked interest – article after article – to see how Paulinho would be described and if reference would be made to the club or league where he now plies his trade. As expected, the English media focused on Paulinho being an ex-Tottenham player while British fans bemoaned why Paulinho never displayed this lethality for them in the English Premier League (EPL). No mention – or hardly any – of China, the Chinese Super League (CSL) or Guangzhou Evergrande, Paulinho’s current club, which is managed by Brazilian Luis Felipe Scolari. Why would they? The CSL has proven to be a direct threat to the EPL and all the major leagues in Europe, as they lure footballers from European leagues with ginormous salaries.

In a column titled “Look out! The Chinese are coming”, exactly four weeks ago, I spoke of CSL’s almost successful attempt at snatching Manchester United’s and England’s captain, Wayne Rooney. Interestingly, at the time, Sky Sports football pundit and columnist Paul Merson declared that he thinks that currently, Rooney is too good for China and the CSL. I warned Merson and others that in the coming years, they might be surprised that China and the Super League is too good for a player with declining abilities like Rooney. With Paulinho’s clinical display last Thursday for Brazil, it seems my warnings should have been “in the coming days”, not years.

Brazilians Hulk (L), Paulinho and Oscar (R) have all moved to the Chinese Super League . Will Neymar join them next?
(Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images South America)

China is poised to emerge as a force in world football at both the national team level and at the league level. And the Brazilians are their biggest helpers. Currently, over 24 Brazilians are signed to teams in the Super League including Paulinho, Oscar, Hulk and Ramires, who all played for Brazil – at home – in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

In the recent past, several pundits and fans believed that players who moved to the CSL from major teams in Europe were signalling the death to their international careers. However, not so for Brazil’s current national coach Tite. Players like Willian of Chelsea and Alisson of Roma often spend more time on the substitute’s bench than on the pitch showcasing their skills. However, Brazilians who venture to China start automatically and remain match fit and ready for a call-up by their national coach. When you looked at the Brazil side that beat Uruguay last Thursday, 11 of the 14 players used (starting 11 plus the three substitutes) ply their trade in Europe for teams such as Liverpool, Roma, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona, and others. Nevertheless, the stars of the encounter for coach Tite and Brazil in central midfield were Paulinho and Renato Augusto, two Chinese-based Brazilian players in the lineup,  who both dominated the Uruguayans.

Brazil’s midfielder Paulinho (2nd-L) shoots his first goal during their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier football match against Uruguay at the Centenario stadium in Montevideo, on March 23, 2017.
(Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images / PABLO PORCIUNCULA)

Various individuals will believe that the display by Brazil, and Paulinho especially, is a resurgence of the Samba style and Paulinho’s form of 2013. Quickly forgotten are the lacklustre performances by Dunga-coached Brazil and Paulinho’s exile. Several had forgotten Paulinho’s masterful display in the 2013 Confederations Cup which saw Brazil hoist the trophy just before the 2014 World Cup. After all, the 7-1 mauling of Brazil by the Germans in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup, a match which saw Paulinho affixed to the bench, highlighted his forgotten status and with all likelihood, his drop in form.

His move away from Tottenham to China 21 months ago, for many, was the death knell to his once promising career. However, it appears, China is the land of the renaissance for Paulinho and hopefully in the future for other Brazilians and international stars. In the past four years, Chinese clubs have won the AFC Champions League twice, in 2013 and 2015, and have represented Asia in the FIFA Club World Cup. Despite South American and European teams winning the 13 editions of the FIFA Club World Cup, don’t be surprised if in the near futurity, due to the influx of talent to China, a Chinese Club like Paulinho’s Guangzhou Evergrande wins the FIFA Club World Cup. Talented footballers are there and/or constantly coming to China, and the Chinese youngsters are being groomed for the future simultaneously. Guangzhou Evergrande, for example, Paulinho’s team, was one step away from the finals in the 2013 and 2015 FIFA Club World Cup editions. Unfortunately for them, they suffered defeat in the semifinals to the eventual champions on both occasions, Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively.

Paulinho (L) of China’s Guangzhou Evergrande celebrates with teammate Zou Zheng after scoring against Mexico’s Club America during their Club World Cup quarter-final soccer match in Osaka, western Japan, December 13, 2015. Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande scored twice in the last 10 minutes, including a stoppage time winner from midfielder Paulinho, in a stunning 2-1 win over America in the Club World Cup on Sunday.
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Paulinho’s story, along with Oscar’s, Hulk’s, Augusto’s and Ramires’ indicate that CSL is an emerging and a viable option for elite Brazilian footballers who still want to play on the international stage. Undoubtedly, in this one match alone, he has repaid the faith shown by Tite in him and others like Renato Augusto. The Paulinho story is showing international coaches and managers that players who spurn Europe for China are not club castoffs but players still possibly at the top of their international career. The CSL is not a pre-retirement home or burial ground where you get rich, as once joked. However, it is a place where young talent can still be nurtured with ample playing time away from time-strapped European setups.

Look out my friends! Increasingly, in the future, more Brazilians will be coming to a World Cup near you by plying their trade in China and not necessarily in South America or Europe. You cannot say I never told you so.

Until next time…

© Zaheer Clarke

Zaheer E. Clarke is a multi-award-winning freelance sportswriter. He believes Argentinean Alfredo Di Stéfano, and not Pele, is the most complete footballer to ever grace a football pitch. After such pronouncements, his friends have often recommended him for admission to the asylum. He still remains at large. 

He can be reached at zaheer.clarke@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook at Zaheer Facts, Lies & Statistics, or on Twitter at @zaheerclarke.

This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on March 27, 2017.

The Warriors are in trouble, or are they?

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published March 6, 2017

With Kevin Durant injured, several individuals believe the Warriors are doomed to make it out of the West. Don’t sound the alarm just yet. The injury might make the team better.

Kevin Durant to the Warriors, the rest of the NBA’s nightmare happened.
(Photo credit: SN illustration/Getty Images)

Seven months ago, former MVP and eight-time All-Star Kevin Durant released a statement that shocked the world and changed the landscape of the NBA possibly forever. Part of his statement simply read, “I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”

At the end of the last NBA Season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were crowned NBA Champions with Lebron James lifting his team from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Two weeks after his team’s meteoric rise from the proverbial ashes, their beaten rivals in the NBA Finals, the Warriors, acquired former MVP and eight-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant. The Warriors were the newly crowned best regular season team in NBA history, copping 73 wins in their 82-game regular season. This feat had just eclipsed the former record set by the all-conquering 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan of 72 wins. However, the Warriors failed to cap off the effort by winning the NBA title.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30, right) is congratulated by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) after game seven of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 96-88.
(Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Several individuals considered the move by free agent Durant to the Warriors as a punk move. Durant and his then-team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, had the Warriors in a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals. However, the Warriors overcame the Thunder, and at the end of the season, Durant chose to join the Warriors instead of staying with the Thunder or joining any other team in free agency.

At the time, Durant said of his reason to join the Warriors, “The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community, which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”

Golden State’s Kevin Durant blocks a shot by Cleveland’s LeBron James during the Warriors’ win on January 16, 2017.
[Photo credit: AP PHOTO]

Without a question, in his 59 games since joining the Warriors, Durant has grown as a player. Though averaging the second lowest point per game season of his career, Durant has been leading his new team in various statistical categories including points, rebounds and blocks per game. Unsurprisingly, Durant either led the Thunder or was ranked second in the same categories last season. What is surprising is that he is doing this while playing the fewest minutes per game of his career, 33.6, and with the lowest usage rate of his career, 27.7%. (Usage rate or percentage is an estimate of the team’s plays used by a player while he is on the floor). In other words, Durant, on his new team the Warriors, has been playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career.

Despite the hoopla about James Harden and Russell Westbrook, both former teammates of Durant, who are putting up crazy numbers leading their respective teams, the Houston Rockets and the Thunder, it is Durant, according to Basketball-Reference.com, who was the prohibitive favourite with a 43.3% probability of winning the MVP three months ago in early December 2016. Interestingly, although Westbrook is on pace to average a triple-double (in points, rebounds and assists) and would be the first player since Oscar Robertson to do so over an entire NBA season, history is not on his side to win the MVP crown. Of a fact, since 1983, no MVP has come from a team ranked lower than third in their conference rankings. Unfortunately, for Westbrook, his team is currently seventh in the Western Conference rankings.

Table 1. 2016-17 NBA MVP Award Tracker (on December 5, 2016)

Player MVP Award Probability%
Kevin Durant 39.7%
James Harden 23.9%
Russell Westbrook 14.7%
Stephen Curry 6.4%
Chris Paul 6.1%
LeBron James 4.3%
Jimmy Butler 1.9%
Blake Griffin 1.8%
Kawhi Leonard 1.7%
Kevin Love 0.9%

Durant has been known his entire career as an offensive juggernaut, ranking fourth all-time in points per game category at 27.23 behind Michael Jordan (30.12), Wilt Chamberlain (30.07), and Elgin Baylor (27.36) and ahead of Lebron “King” James (27.11). However, it is on the defensive side that Durant has been putting up all-time career season numbers since joining the Warriors. His rebound rate (8.2 rebounds per game) and block rate (1.6 blocks per game) are the highest of his career. Interestingly, on the offensive side, his turnover rate (2.3 turnovers per game) is the lowest of his career and his field goal percentage, 53.7%, is the highest of his career.

Durant’s role on the Warriors is a seismic shift compared to his role on the Thunder and it is being borne out in the numbers. With the Thunder (and the Seattle SuperSonics), Durant played 13% of his minutes as a shooting guard, 71% as a small forward and 16% as a power forward. With the Warriors, Durant has played only 44% as a small forward and a surprising 56% as a power forward.

Table 2. Percentage of minutes Durant plays at each position at the OKC Thunder vs at the Golden State Warriors.

Position Estimate
Seasons Team PG% SG% SF% PF%

C%

9

SEA, OKC 13% 71% 16%
1 GSW 44%

56%

Upon Durant’s arrival in his hometown of Washington D.C. for his 700th NBA regular season, he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and tibia bone bruise after his teammate, Zaza Pachulia, fell on his left leg after a tussle with Washington Wizards’ Marcin Gortat. Durant, Warriors’ best player this season, is out indefinitely. The Warriors’ reports last week read that Durant will be re-evaluated in four weeks, just two weeks before the start of the postseason. Unfortunately, with Durant going down with this injury, his chances of winning the MVP has also gone down in the latest MVP tracker by Basketball Reference.com to 20.7 % from 43.3% in December. However, the Warriors chances of winning the title may have gone up.

Warriors’ fans will recall last season when MVP Curry suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain in the first round of the playoffs. Curry, despite setting a record season in efficiency, 50% from the field, 45% from the 3-point line and 90% from the free throw, he never truly looked himself all through the playoffs. Eventually, he opted to skip the Olympics in order to rest the knee and recuperate fully for the start of this NBA season. It is left to see if the Warriors will not miss a beat without the super-efficient Durant and if he will return to his MVP-level performance. Fortunately, Durant has a good history of returning from injuries strong.

The Cavaliers have signed Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver in recent weeks in an effort to be prepared to tackle the star-studded Warriors in the NBA Finals. The Warriors have some depth and their role players will get added exposure with Durant being out for now. This might be a blessing for the Warriors if they are going to come out of the West and wrestle the Cavaliers for a third straight year in the NBA Finals. Despite losing their last two games since Durant’s injury, a caution to the wise, do not count them out just yet, the Warriors on a whole might get better in the long run with Durant being out.

Until next time…

© Zaheer Clarke

Zaheer E. Clarke is a multi-award-winning freelance sportswriter. In college, he sprained his knee, similarly to Durant, and was out for the remainder of the season. Shortly thereafter, the coach resigned and Zaheer was asked to coach the team. Though he spent the rest of the season drawing up plays while his teammates called him ‘Pill’ Jackson, he doesn’t remember how many games the team won with him as coach. Maybe two? … One? … Zero?

He can be reached at zaheer.clarke@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook at Zaheer Facts, Lies & Statistics, or on Twitter at @zaheerclarke.

This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on March 6, 2017.