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Transfer Rater: Diego Costa to Al-Hilal

Transfers
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 By John Duerden

Paulinho move to Barcelona adds credibility to Chinese Super League

Guangzhou Evergrande have a one-point lead atop the CSL over Andre Villas-Boas' Shanghai SIPG.
The FC crew discredit Neymar's push for Barcelona to bring in Brazilian teammate Paulinho.

Paulinho arrived in China in 2015 with a need to reinvent himself after an underwhelming spell with Tottenham Hotspur. Two years and two months later, the Brazilian is leaving Guangzhou Evergrande for Barcelona. That simple fact is, for Asian football, historic.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has been painted as a semi-retirement home for unambitious and greedy South Americans and Europeans. This transfer shows that there may be more to it than that.

"Losing Paulinho is a loss for Evergrande, but it is a good thing for Chinese football," Andre Villas-Boas, boss of Shanghai SIPG, Guangzhou's title rivals told reporters. "It proves that the world's leading clubs are paying attention to the Chinese Super League."

Paulinho has played over 80 games in China, becoming the best and most consistent player in the CSL, and, arguably, any league in Asia.

The midfielder headed to the Premier League in 2013 with a big reputation. After a second season at White Hart Lane during which he started just three games he left North London for around half of the £17m million or so that he cost Spurs.

Barcelona are paying around €40 million, and activating his release clause.

It will be strange, but slightly thrilling, for Guangzhou fans to watch their former favourite son line up alongside Lionel Messi. It may just show former teammates too that, in football, all things are possible.

Arriving in southern China in June 2015, it took the midfielder a few games to settle down. But he was soon forging a fine partnership with Zheng Zhi, formerly of Charlton Athletic and Celtic.

He went on to stamp his authority in China and on the continent. Coming into the 2015 AFC Champions League (ACL) at the quarterfinal stage, he played every minute of the next six games, as the Reds were crowned champions.

While a spectacular free kick against Kashiwa Reysol in Japan grabbed the headlines, his presence in the middle gave Guangzhou extra stability, better organisation and, as time passed, an increasing goal threat.

Despite the 2015 continental title, it was in 2016 when Paulinho really stepped up a level. The standout player in China, he leaves with the Southern Tigers top of the league, and in the last eight of the ACL. They looking good for both.

Paulinho of Guangzhou Evergrande
Paulinho leaves Guangzhou Evergrande with the club looking good for the CSL and ACL double.

Well, they would be if he were staying. Despite quadrupling their money on the player, Guangzhou didn't want to sell. Paulinho will be tough to replace, and not just because the transfer window has been closed in China. Not many clubs in Asia have a current Brazilian international on their books.

Almost as impressive as leaving Guangzhou for world giants at a fee almost four times what the Chinese club paid, is that Paulinho played his way back into the Brazilian national team while in China.

Part of the 2014 World Cup side who were thrashed 7-1 in the semifinals by Germany, he earned his recall over two years later during Brazil's attempt to reach the 2018 edition.

As Guangzhou boss Luiz Felipe Scolari pointed out, the recall was something to shout about.

"Paulinho was not in the national team list, but he fought his way back. That is why I am very proud of the Chinese Super League," the former Brazil boss said in March.

"So it is wrong to say that the CSL is for players who have come to the end of their career. The CSL has showed it is competitive and it is able to give players the chance to play for their country again."

But Paulinho didn't just return, he shone. Brazil's start in qualification was mixed, but after the Guangzhou man arrived, the South Americans won all eight of their games. Paulinho has played in all but one -- the absence was due to suspension -- as the Selecao became the first team to qualify for Russia 2018.

Brazil celebrated an unlikely 4-1 victory at Uruguay on Thursday.
Paulinho scored a hat trick as Brazil beat Uruguay in 2018 World Cup qualifying in March.

There was more. In March, Brazil went to Uruguay. They won 4-1, with Paulinho scoring three. It was quite a statement on so many levels with the main one being that: playing in China has not reduced the player's effectiveness, if anything, it was the opposite.

If further confirmation were needed, it came as Bayern Munich were also sniffing around earlier this year. But it is Barcelona who have got their man.

Paulinho has shown that playing in China and Asia can offer a player the biggest redemption possible: from Tottenham flop to Barcelona recruit.

So, while Scolari has a large hole to fill in his midfield and fans have something similar in their hearts, there will surely be some pride when they see the 29-year-old playing for Barcelona.

As much as Paulinho has helped Guangzhou Evergrande with his performances in his two years at the club, he has performed an even bigger service for Chinese and Asian football.

John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

 

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