Mascherano wearing the jersey of the Hebei Fortune FC (Photo via AS)

The Chinese Super League has been dropping the big bucks in the last years, spending quite a lot of money in signing up several international players of great renown. Following the likes of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in the early 2010’s, the league now signs stars such as Hulk, Oscar, or Axel Witsel, and while many players may rave about the League’s “sports project,” if you’ve seen their matches, you know that something else (*cough* money *cough*) is probably playing a role here.

You probably read about it when Carlos Tevez signed there last year, earning a record US $40 million during his stay… Which, considering he only scored for four little goals in 16 matches, doesn’t sound like a particularly fair trade.

Since then, Chinese fans may have grown a little suspicious over the motivations of some Argentine players for being there. However that may be, it hasn’t stopped them, and there’s currently five of our best and brightest starring in their matches: Augusto Fernandez, Nicolás Aguirre, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Nicolás Gaitán, and the newly-arrived Javier Mascherano.

Carlos Tevez when he signed for Shangaï Shenshua a two-years contract, making him the highest paid footballer in the world (Photo via Diario Popular)
Carlos Tevez when he signed for Shangaï Shenshua a two-years contract, making him the highest paid footballer in the world (Photo via Diario Popular)

 

Javier Masherano was arguably one of FC Barcelona’s top players of the last ten years. Although he was not the most spoken about, especially compared with Lionel Messi, Iniesta, or Xavi, he was an important figure in the Catalan defensive area. He started as a midfielder but was quickly moved to a central defender position, with Carlos Puyol, the other big contender for that spot, often being injured. Even though he didn’t particularly like this place on the field, he helped ensure Barcelona’s success in two Champions Leagues and four Spanish championships, and so became one of Argentina’s most coveted (and selected) players.

However, football is a game where no place is assured, and last season found a 33 year old Mascherano competing for his central defender spot against the young Samuel Umtiti. While Umtiti was gaining experience, the Argentine was losing playing time and fighting for a position he didn’t even like. It was time for him to pick up a last challenge before the 2018 World Cup, and his choice came as a bit of surprise – the Hebei China Fortune FC in Chinese Super League (CSL), which paid nearly US $10 million for the Argentine.

As we said, many international players have been attracted by joining the “interesting sports project” offered by Chinese clubs, but for many it meant the end of their international career: national managers are usually hesitant when it comes to calling a player who plays in China, Qatar, or the United-States, which are often seen as “retirement houses” (as in “really-well-paid-with-easy-football-every-Sunday” retirement houses).

Indeed, it would be lying to say that famous footballers are not coming to China for the money. But in the case of an international player and a leader of the Argentine team, it does seem strange that three months before the World Cup, he’d join a league where more often than not, players are overlooked when it comes to being called to participate in the national team.

A few players lost their spots in their national squad when going to China, although that’s not always the case. Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, for example, has been playing in Tianjin since 2007, where he signed despite offers from the Juventus of Turin (probably attracted by the, ahem, sporting project). Players signed by the Asian country have been known to keep their position to defend their flag on the field, but that’s usually because they’re too essential to a squad to not be a part of it. It should also be noted that they’re generally younger, and Mascherano, while practically being a one man team, is sadly on the older end of the football spectrum.

There’s also some Brazilian players who have kept their national positions, and these seem to be precisely the examples that Mascherano aims to follow. The Argentine was very clear when joining Hebei, seeing how he stated that he was not there to retire and that he wanted to be an essential part of Argentina’s team in Russia. “Sampaoli watches my games, and both Paulinho and Renato Augusto have been selected for Brazil,” he said during his first press conference, before assuring that despite no official word from the Argentine manager, he had spoken with him and confirmed that if he kept his abilities up, he definitely had a chance with the albiceste.

Mascherano is not just a typical Argentine’s squad player. Captain from 2008 to 2011, he is an essential part of Jorge Sampaoli’s tactical system, a 3-4-1-2 where he was playing in central defense. With sixteen World Cup appearances, he is an experienced player who was in the Argentine’s squad for the last friendly matches against Nigeria and Russia – no minor feat.

It should be noted that he probably wants to go back to his preferred position in the Argentine team, since together with the money, this is one of the main reasons why he joined Hebei. The Chinese club let him play as a central midfield, his spot of choice. Will this affect his status on the national team? Two players are more likely to play in the central midfield: Biglia and Enzo Pérez. Mascherano could push one away if he performs well in China.

Javier Mascherano debuts at Hebei Fortune in China (Photo via Infobae)

While it’s too early to tell, here’s a reassuring thought for Mascherano: the games with Hebei will probably be good, with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gervinho as two experimented players in the attack that should be able to lead the team to a high position in the league. Another important feature for the team is the coaching staff, led by Manuel Pellegrino, who has joined China after managing Manchester City. “I was the one who gave him his debut with River Plate,” declared the Chilean manager a week before the deal was made. “Mascherano is a leader, and I think he’ll be great for my team in the Chinese Super League.”

It very well may be that the South American connection and the trust Pellegrino has on Mascherano turn out to be the key for him to keep his talent shining bright, and his spot on the National Team.