Brazilian’s move demonstrates the rise of the Chinese Super League
Guangzhou Evergrande may already be missing Paulinho but even fans of the Chinese Super League champions see that the Brazilian’s move to Barcelona marks a significant step in recognition for the country’s domestic club scene.
Not that they wanted to sell him. “Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club remain resolute in our transfer plan of Paulinho,” read a club statement in July. “We will never sell him mid-season.”
Tottenham Hotspur followers may have been surprised when Barca paid 40m for a player who struggled in London from 2013 to 2015, but the 29-yearold’s transfer was well received in China.
“Because Paulinho has come here and done ever so well, now he has a transfer to one of the biggest clubs in the world,” says Andre Villas-Boas, Shanghai SIPG coach and once boss of Spurs.
“I think it shows that the big clubs are also looking at our league. It’s a reflection of the players and the quality of work that is being done here.”
This echoes similar sentiments expressed by players and coaches around the league. The country’s president, Xi Jinping, must also have allowed himself a smile of satisfaction, having made it clear that he wants China to become a powerhouse in football.
So the sight of one of the biggest clubs in the world having to pay big money – around three times what Guangzhou Evergrande paid Spurs 26 months earlier – to a Chinese team was warmly welcomed, as was Paulinho’s goodbye gesture of giving away a car to the team’s supporters.
There was also some satisfaction among rival fans that the club that started the spending spree in 2010, hoovering up the best domestic players and winning the league every year since, were being relieved of their best player.
Paulinho has been the best player in China, and probably even all of Asia, over the past two years. A return of 25 goals in 95 games does not tell the full story of how influential he was, giving Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team authority and power in the middle and a presence, often arriving late, in the opposition penalty area.
He helped the side to two Chinese Super League titles and victory in the 2015 Asian Champions League. When he left, the team were clear at the top of the table in China and in the last eight of the Champions League, although a week after his departure they lost 4-0 to Shanghai SIPG in the first leg of their quarter-final. He was badly missed and Guangzhou Evergrande do not have a replacement.
As good as Paulinho has been in China, his greatest assist could come off the pitch. The Chinese Super League has money but not yet the worldwide respect it craves. Players who go there are often derided for a lack of ambition, yet Paulinho has shown that this is no semi-retirement home.
Having not represented his country since the 2014 World Cup, Paulinho was called-up again in 2016 after Brazil’s inconsistent start to qualification for the 2018 tournament. The Selecao won their next eight games – he missed one through suspension – and became the first team to reach Russia.
Excellent throughout the campaign, his high point came in March when, a goal down in Uruguay, he scored a hat-trick to secure victory.
Paulinho has been lining up in midfield for his country alongside Renato Augusto of Beijing Guoan, and to have a Chinesebased Brazilian midfield would have been inconceivable until very recently.
If Brazil can have success with a Chinese midfield and Paulinho can rebuild a career to go to the very pinnacle of the European game then, perhaps, the Chinese Super League is not that bad after all and perhaps money is not the temptation.
Paulinho did plenty in his 26 months in China but his biggest achievement may be yet to come. Barcelona will certainly have a few more fans in China, willing the Brazilian on.
“It shows that the big clubs are also looking at our league. It’s a reflection of the players and the quality of work that is being done here” Shanghai SIPG coach Andre Villas-Boas on Paulinho’s move to Europe