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