With the Chinese Super League (CSL) taking a respectful breather as the World Cup circus plods across the airwaves for June, devotees of Chinese football are forgiven for feeling melancholic.
How else to cope with a whole month lacking cryptic CFA injunctions? How else to digest the disappointment of delaying Evergrande’s glorious demise? How else to face the reality that a shoddy cellphone company and Mongolian milk peddlers are China’s chief representatives at the World Cup? Even Uzbekistan managed to sneak a pair of officials aboard a plane to Russia.
Fortunately, FIFA has promised to compensate such loses dealt Chinese fandom by echoing the finer points of the CSL, namely by hastily throwing VAR into the mixer thereby ensuring a reliable scapegoat for aggrieved supporters, showcasing playacting at its multifarious world-class best, and offering timely reminders that the organizer is bigger than the game itself.
This, of course, is a roundabout way of arriving at a simple question; who should Chinese supporters follow this summer?
Here are five names who may make the final squads which must be named by June 4.
John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA, Nigeria)
The imposing midfielder will captain a Super Eagles side in Russia that will hope to build on a resolute qualifying campaign and a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Mikel appears more settled in his second year in China, even if Tianjin TEDA continues to underwhelm, and will hope to bring this form into the perilous Group D which includes Argentina, Croatia, and Iceland. Used as both a holding midfielder and center back at club level, the former Chelsea player occasionally occupies more attacking roles for his country, he will be joined in Russia by Changchun Yatai’s pacey forward Odion Ighalo.
Giovanni Moreno (Shanghai Shenhua, Colombia)
Despite having become something of a cult figure on the blue side of Shanghai, Moreno’s international career struggled to gain traction until 2017, when he gained his first cap for nearly half a decade. In truth, Moreno is not enjoying the most fruitful of seasons, but has been productive throughout his Shenhua career and his 6ft 3in frame offers a “different” option to the likes of the more robust Radamel Falcao and Carlos Bacca. While there is no guarantee the Colombian will survive the purging of the 35-man squad, José Pékerman’s notice of the lanky forward over the past 18 months is certainly a positive sign. (Update – latest reports suggest Moreno has not made the cut)
Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang, Portugal)
Contrary to the furor that surrounded the arrival of Yannick Carrasco and Nicolás Gaitán, the composed center back was signed from West Ham with relative quiet. Prior to his arrival in China’s northeast, Fonte had been a Premier League regular for close to 10 years, experience that is gradually beginning to show as Dalian’s results improve. At 34 years old, this will likely be his final foray on the international stage and having been a vital cog in the Portugal side that triumphed at Euro 2016, Fonte will be hoping for a swashbuckling swansong.
Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande, South Korea)
It is difficult to assess the likelihood of Chinese support gathering behind South Korea, such is the unpredictable turbulence of Sino-Korean relations. Yet few overseas players have shown the loyalty and consistency to the Chinese game as Kim Young-gwon. Signed to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012, the defender has proved a stalward in hengda’s domestic domination complemented by strong performances in the AFC Champions League. Kim’s playing time has been hampered by the CFA’s new foreigner rules introduced last season, but with more than 50 caps to his name Kim will be a crucial part to any success South Korea enjoys in Russia.
Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan, Brazil)
While the shimmering pizazz of Brazil’s front three tends to hog media attention, Beijing’s longtime midfielder will be of equal importance if the Seleção are to shine at the World Cup. Having broken into the side under previous manager Dunga, the former Bayer Leverkusen player continued to keep Brazil ticking over as Tite led the side through an imperious qualifying campaign. Renato Augusto proves playing in the CSL doesn’t represent the death of an international career and thus shines favorably on a league so often derided in Europe as a retirement home.
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