Shanghai: Javier Mascherano is the latest big star to make the switch to Chinese football after the Argentine international defender swapped Barcelona for little-known Hebei China Fortune.
The decorated 33-year-old will team up with fellow Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi at Hebei following eight highly successful years at the Camp Nou.
No financial details were released when Mascherano was unveiled last week as a Hebei player, but he can expect to earn handsomely — Carlos Tevez was reportedly the best-paid footballer in the world when he signed a year ago for Shanghai Shenhua.
Here is a closer look at Mascherano’s new side and gives a taste of what he can expect in the next chapter of his career.
Hebei China Fortune are based in Qinhuangdao, a coastal city of three million people in the northern province of Hebei. It is not quite Barcelona, but Qinhuangdao has a reputation for being a pleasant city popular for weekends away from the bustle and pollution of the Chinese capital Beijing, 300 kilometres (180 miles) to the west. To the south is the major port city of Tianjin, home to fellow Chinese Super League (CSL) sides Teda and Quanjian. Qinhuangdao is best avoided in winter, when temperatures plunge below freezing, but summers are hot. The city is famous for the scenic beach resort of Beidaihe, where the elite of the ruling Communist Party traditionally went as a getaway.
Mascherano will meet at least two familiar faces at his new club. Hebei are coached by the Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, 64, the former Manchester City and Real Madrid manager. Pellegrini and Mascherano were briefly together at the Argentine giants River Plate in 2003. Mascherano would go on to Corinthians in Brazil and then West Ham and Liverpool in the Premier League. Pellegrini left for Villarreal in Spain. Also at Hebei is the forward Lavezzi, 32, who has scored 20 goals in 37 CSL games since signing from Paris Saint-Germain two years ago. Hebei also have Gervinho, the Ivory Coast winger formerly of Arsenal, though his future at the club is uncertain.
Hebei enjoyed a solid season under Pellegrini, finishing fourth of 16 sides in the CSL when the campaign ended in November. However, they suffered disappointment on the final day when they lost a 5-4 goalfest at Shandong Luneng and were pipped to third place — and an Asian Champions League qualifying spot — by Fabio Cannavaro’s Tianjin Quanjian. Lavezzi netted a hat-trick, two of them penalties, but Shandong’s Brazilian international Diego Tardelli snatched the winner with a dramatic 95th-minute penalty. It was only Hebei’s second loss in 11 league games.
Hebei China Fortune, who play in burgundy and white, are not a traditional heavyweight in Chinese football. Like many Chinese teams, they have been through a couple of incarnations and their history is brief. They were founded in 2009 as a provincial team and then became Hebei Zhongji, and were in the second tier until 2015, when they won promotion to the CSL. By then they had been rebranded Hebei China Fortune after being purchased by China Fortune Land Development, a major real-estate developer with deep pockets. In their first season in the top flight, in the 2015-2016 campaign, they came seventh. In a recent report by Soccerex of clubs’ financial muscle in world football, Hebei were listed 31st, a place below Inter Milan and ahead of AC Milan.
No Camp Nou
Mascherano is used to playing at some of the world’s great football arenas in front of massive crowds, so the Chinese Super League will be an adjustment. Hebei play at the 33,000-capacity Qinhuangdao Olympic Sports Center Stadium, a smart but no-frills arena built in 2004 and used as one of the football venues for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Hebei do not sell out their stadium and in their final home game of last season just 22,000 were there to see them beat champions Guangzhou Evergrande 3-0. Fair to say, the atmosphere and stadium are no Camp Nou.