Football in China does not enjoy the best international reputation despite high-profile imports into the Chinese Super League since clubs started spending big in 2010.
Foreign stars such as Paulinho, Oscar and Hulk may have helped raise standards in the country and also helped to lift attendances and the league’s profile abroad, but outside China, doubts remain over the quality of the league.
Clarence Seedorf clearly doesn’t rate the Super League. The coach of the Cameroon national team, who in a stellar career played for some of the world’s biggest clubs including Real Madrid and both Inter Milan and AC Milan, has warned his players not to head east if they want to represent the African team in international competition.
“Good young players don’t compete in China or in Asia,” Seedorf, a former Netherlands international, said.”Players must understand that if they go after more lucrative contracts, then they forfeit their chances of playing in the national team.”
Benjamin Moukandjo, who captained the Indomitable Lions to the 2017 African Cup of Nations title, and striker Christian Bassogog were both dropped from the squad that faced Comoros earlier this month, only because they play in China.
On Sept. 22 Moukandjo, who at 29 should be in his footballing prime, announced his retirement from the Cameroon national team.
“I found the recent comments by Mr Clarence Seedorf very brash and unfair,” Moukandjo said. “Unfair because despite being the team captain, I never received a call from the coach to inform me about his decision.”
The Beijing Rehne star added that it was unfair to judge a player simply because of where he played. “My real level and that of my other team-mates should have been assessed on the pitch before the coach made his decision to sideline any player.”
Not everyone agrees with Seedorf. Some seem to feel that being away from the top European leagues does not have to spell the end for players’ international careers. It can even be beneficial.
Brazil, a much more successful national team than Cameroon, seems to be more open to the idea of its players plying their trade in China.
Brazil star Paulinho was dropped from the squad of the five-time world champions after their infamous 7-1 defeat in Rio by Germany in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup. A year later, he left Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League to sign for Guangzhou Evergrande.
So impressive was the midfielder’s form in China that he was brought back to the Brazil team in 2016. There, he quickly helped turn around a dismal World Cup qualification campaign, with Brazil winning all eight qualifiers after he returned. So good was he that in August 2017, Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in the world, splashed out about US$46 million to sign him.
Another Brazilian who prospered in China, Renato Augusto, joined Beijing Guoan in 2016 and still played at the 2018 World Cup, scoring against Belgium in the quarter-final.
The game against Belgium was Brazil’s last in the tournament, and notable in the team that beat them was Axel Witsel. The Belgian midfielder joined Tianjin Quanjian in 2017, but was still good enough to play for one of the best national teams in the world at the biggest international tournament on the planet.
Not only that, but in August, German giant Borussia Dortmund swooped to activate his 20 million euro release clause. He is now shining in one of the biggest teams in Europe.
If some of the biggest and best national teams in the world can handle their players working in China, then perhaps it should not be a major issue for Cameroon. Analysts wonder if Seedorf’s negative view of Chinese football is tainted by his own experience of coaching there.
In July 2016, the former midfielder took over Shenzhen, a club in the second tier of Chinese football, but after failing to bring them promotion, he was ousted in early December, to be replaced with Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Coaches with more impressive CVs than Seedorf’s have found success in China hard to come by. Fabio Capello, who has won Italian and European league titles and also coached the England national team, failed to make waves during his nine months in Nanjing with Jiangsu Sainty. He left in March with only one win from his opening three games of the season.
Former Real Madrid and Manchester City coach Manuel Pellegrini arrived to manage Hebei in the summer of 2016, but failed to improve on his local predecessor Li Tie. The Chilean left to take over at West Ham United in the English Premier League in May. And former Brazil boss Mano Menezes also struggled and did not last long.
For their salaries, many times higher than those offered to Chinese coaches, more is expected but is often not delivered. In April it was reported that China national team coach Marcello Lippi was the second highest paid coach in the world.
His annual salary of US$28 million is beaten only by Jose Mourinho of Manchester United. Now, after a string of uninspiring results, there are concerns that even Lippi is not much of an improvement on his predecessor Gao Hongbo.
Despite its detractors, succeeding in Chinese football may not be as easy as some may think.