The 2015 Copa America is about to kick off in Chile with players based at Chinese clubs participating for the first time. Shandong Luneng’s Diego Tardelli and Changchun Yatai’s Marcelo Moreno will represent Brazil and Bolivia at South America’s premier tournament after being included in their respective countries’ final 23-man squads..
Both players arrived in China during this year’s winter transfer window, but it was Tardelli who garnered most of the headlines. The 30-year-old came to Jinan from Atletico Minero for a fee of €5.5 million and under a great weight of expectation. He had won South America’s premier club competition, the Copa Libertadores, under Luneng manager Cuca in 2013 and was fresh in the conscience of Chinese football fans after scoring two goals for Brazil in a Beijing friendly against Argentina last October.
Part of the reason there was so much excitement at the arrival of Tardelli and Guangzhou Evergrande’s Ricardo Goulart this winter was that they had both recently been capped by Brazil. There has been no shortage of Brazilians in the Chinese leagues over the years – there are 35 currently plying their trade in China’s top two tiers – but none of them had ever represented their country while attached to a Chinese club.
Unfortunately, Goulart has fallen out of favour with Brazil manager Dunga, but Tardelli has remained a part of the World Cup winning captain’s plans. He already made history in March when he became the first ever China based player called into the Brazil squad. However, a knee injury suffered in an AFC Champions’ League game against Jeonbuk Motors, meant he was unable to take the field in friendlies against France and Chile.
The setback also meant Tardelli missed the first five games of the Super League season and, since returning, he has largely been pushed out to the left wing from his favoured centre forward role. A return of just two goals in twelve CSL and ACL appearances is probably not what Luneng had hoped for when handing over the relatively high transfer fee, but that hasn’t stopped Dunga recalling him to the national team.
The elusive Brazil cap for a Chinese based player finally arrived this Sunday when Tardelli started and scored in a friendly against Mexico. In the final warm-up game, played early this morning (Beijing time) against Honduras, Tardelli didn’t feature at all, and it remains to be seen how much playing time he gets when Brazil’s tournament gets going on Sunday with a game against Peru.
One thing for sure is that Tardelli won’t be reprising his role on the left-wing at the national level as that is already filled by a chap called Neymar. Instead, he will be competing with the likes of Robinho and Roberto Firmino to lead the line in what many consider to be Brazil’s weakest position.
One player whose starting place is in little doubt, however, is Bolivian striker Marcelo Moreno. The 27-year-old arrived in Changchun from Gremio for a fee of around €2.5 million with over 40 caps to his name and has been a regular in the Bolivian side since 2007.
The 2015 season started slowly for Moreno who failed to score in his first four games. But four goals in his last six indicate that he is going into the tournament in some form, even if his national team lost their only warm-up game 5-0 to Argentina last Sunday.
As that scoreline suggests, the Bolivians aren’t expected to advance beyond the group stages and that’s at least good news for Changchun as Moreno may be returning to their ranks relatively soon. He already missed two games before the CSL took its international break and will certainly be unavailable for Changchun’s clash with Shanghai SIPG on June 20th.
However, he may be back in time for the visit of Guizhou Renhe on June 24th and, barring a shocking performance from Brazil, that’s more than can be said for Tardelli. Should Brazil make it to the final, and many anticipate that they will, he could miss at least four Luneng games. This includes the June 20th crunch clash with Guangzhou Evergrande for which he is guaranteed to be unavailable.
An increasing trend
This is not the first time that foreign players have gone to major tournaments representing Chinese clubs. The trend started when Paraguayan Jorge Luis Campos went to the 1998 World Cup while still on the books at Beijing Guo’an, although he did move to Mexican club Cruz Azul as soon as the tournament was over.
A record six China based foreign players made the trip to Brazil last summer and, interestingly, this January’s Asian Cup marked the first time that Chinese clubs were represented by anyone other than the those in the Middle Kingdom’s national team. Beijing Guo’an and Changchun Yatai have sent Hondurans to the CONCACAF Gold Cup and several players have gone to the African Cup of Nations while on the books at Chinese clubs.
Indeed, it is at Africa’s continental show piece that such players have had the most success. In 2012, Christopher Katongo and James Chamanga won the tournament with Zambia while affiliated to Henan Jianye and Dalian Shide, respectively. Chamanga, now of Liaoning Whowin, has been to the tournament a record three times while at a Chinese club, but it was Katongo who made the greatest splash in 2012. As well as lifting the trophy, the striker was named player of the tournament and the 2012 BBC African Footballer of the Year.
With the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez playing in Chile, it’s highly unlikely that Tardelli or Moreno are going to attract the kind of attention Katongo did in 2012. Tardelli could well end up getting his hands on the trophy, but it would be quite a story for a player with just 10 international caps at the age of 30 to outshine Neymar, Willian or (for better or for worse) David Luiz.
However, that’s why his and Moreno’s trip to the tournament is a significant milestone for Chinese football. The Copa America is a high caliber tournament and Chinese representation in it can only be a good thing.
Asian based players have long been taking part in the tournament and it’s about time China caught up. As long ago as 1995, a Brazil squad that finished runners-up to Uruguay featured six players from Japanese clubs. The significance of foreign players to the development of local stars is a debate for a separate time, but it is great for Chinese fans to have the opportunity to go and see a player who just spent a month playing with Neymar or has just taken on Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal in a high pressure competitive fixture.
For a month last Spring, it looked like the Chinese national team was going to take part in this year’s Copa America. That would certainly have been fascinating to watch, although there were justifiable fears that it could have ended very badly. The AFC’s decision to schedule World Cup qualifiers this June meant that wasn’t meant to be but, while the participation of Tardelli and Moreno hardly makes up for the absence of the national team, it at least provides a little bit of extra interest and optimism for fans of Chinese football.