Wei Shihao was accused of “evil behaviour” and suspended last year for breaking an opponent’s leg, but a lightning start to the season means he could be China’s next export to Europe.
China has a population of 1.4 billion but is hardly blessed with football talent, with Wu Lei its best player. He moved to Espanyol, now relegated from Spain’s La Liga, last year.
But four goals in the opening three games for reigning Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande has propelled Wei to joint top of the scoring charts and renewed speculation that he too could be set for a move abroad.
Wei needed just seven minutes to stamp his mark on the coronavirus-delayed season, cutting in from his favoured position on the left and bending the ball in with his right foot in a 2-0 win over Shanghai Shenhua.
Wei scored a tap-in for his second of the game but Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro, who gave him a boot up the backside when he subbed him on 69 minutes, is demanding more.
“I have criticised and managed him — all that was to help him become better,” Xinhua news agency quoted the Italian legend as saying.
“He is rather young and some of his behaviour on the field does not make much sense,” the 46-year-old added.
With his slight build and the number seven on his back, there are similarities with Wu, who has vowed to stick by Chinese-owned Espanyol despite relegation.
But while Wu spent all of his career at Shanghai SIPG before moving to Espanyol in January 2019, Wei is already at his seventh club.
Wei is rare in Chinese football — a player who moved to Europe as a youngster, joining Boavista in Portugal in 2013.
He spent more than three years in Portugal before returning to China with SIPG. He was then off to Beijing Guoan, before signing for Evergrande in February 2019 for a reported 2.6 million euros.
Chinese and Spanish media reports suggest Wei would have been on the move again earlier this year, possibly to Chinese-owned Granada in La Liga, but for the coronavirus.
– Tattoos and dreadlocks –
Wei, who once sported white-tipped dreadlocks, averages a goal every other game for Evergrande and his performances so far this season have eclipsed foreign stars such as team-mate Paulinho and Oscar and Marko Arnautovic of SIPG.
But his career is yet to take off at international level.
He has 14 caps for China, scoring two goals, and his most notable contribution was breaking an opponent’s leg with a nasty challenge in a 1-0 home defeat last year to Uzbekistan.
The tattooed forward escaped with only a yellow card and later apologised but Chinese state media and fans tore into him.
The Global Times said that “the reckless tackle has become one of frequent actions by Wei in the CSL”.
The heavyweight state newspaper said that he should be punished otherwise his “evil behaviour will continue both at home and abroad”. Wei was suspended by Evergrande for one month.
The CSL season, which was supposed to kick off in February before coronavirus struck, is still in its infancy but Chinese media say Wei is finally fulfilling his talent.
“This once rebellious and ill-disciplined young man has gradually matured under the guidance of Cannavaro,” said the state-run Beijing Youth Daily.
Titan Sports said that since arriving at Evergrande “his biggest change is his attitude”.
“Before, playing for SIPG and Guoan, Wei Shihao’s temper caused a lot of trouble for himself,” Titan said.