We are still trying to work out who has got the best end of this export deal. Corinthians, a top professional football team in Brazil, has signed Chen Zhizhao from Nanchang Hengyuan on a two-year loan. Chen will be the first Chinese to play in the Brazilian league.
The diminutive 23 year old striker has sufficient talent to have spent the last six months in a development camp for promising Chinese players in Portugal, giving him a smattering of Portuguese that will be helpful at his new club. But Corinthians make no secret of the fact that Chen will be no more than a squad player. Their main reason for taking him on is to raise the club’s profile in China. Not that there is anything wrong in that. Professional football is a business and plenty of European teams have take on Asian players for just such marketing purposes, knowing that if they become first team regulars it will be a bonus.
The most successful examples of Chinese playing abroad are probably Li Tie and Sun Jihai in the English Premier League in the early 2000s. Manchester United signed Dong Fangzhuo from Dalian Shidein 2004, hoping to repeat in China the marketing success they have had in South Korea with Park Ji-sung, but Dong never made the grade as a player. That may be the challenge for Chen in Brazil, and limit Corinthians return on their investment.
Our man in the world of muddied oafs says the real prize for foreign clubs among China’s rising generation of players is Deng Zhuoxiang, a 22 year old midfielder who plays for Shandong Luneng but the transfer price being asked for him is intentionally prohibitive. Yet what China’s troubled domestic game really needs now, even as it brings in top foreign stars like France international striker Nicholas Anelka, is a homegrown player to star for a top club in a top foreign league, just as Yao Ming’s success in the NBA in the U.S. boosted basketball at home.