The Carlos Tevez story took another twist at the start of January, when his hometown club Boca Juniors announced he was rejoining the club after a year away in China. His return to Argentina and Buenos Aires, where he first starred for Boca as a teenage sensation from 2001 until 2004, put an end to his much-publicised misadventure in the Chinese Super League.
Tevez, who has won league titles in Argentina, Brazil, England and Italy, is one of the greatest strikers of his generation, although he's known as much for his exploits off the pitch as on it. Headlines stick to him like rainy clouds to a skyline in Manchester, where, of course, he played for both of the city's famous clubs.
Tevez caused a stir in December 2016 when Chinese Super League team Shanghai Shenhua revealed it had signed him from Boca on a two-year contract. Forbes reported wages of $820,000 a week, or approximately $40 million for the year he played in China. However, it quickly emerged that this was not to be an adventure he would fully embrace.
Four goals. Forty million dollars. Ten million per goal.
On his return to Argentina, the country's famous former World Cup-winning captain, Diego Maradona, who is a close friend of Tevez, rejoiced at the idea that Tevez had hoodwinked his Chinese employers to Argentinian sports newspaper Ole (h/t Goal.com): "He went to China. He filled up Santa Claus' sack with dollars and came back to Boca. Perfect."
Tevez's move to China started with promise. He arrived in Shanghai at the peak of the Chinese Super League's spending spree on overseas footballers, which included the purchase of Brazilian star Oscar, who joined cross-city rivals Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea. The total outlay exceeded the English Premier League's spend over the same winter transfer window, per the BBC.
"With Tevez's arrival, there was a lot of speculation," says Michael Church, a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong who has been covering Asian football for over 20 years. "There was a lot of talk about this huge salary that he was supposedly on.
"It was a weird situation. Shanghai Shenhua had qualified for the preliminary rounds of the Asian Champions League. They had a new manager, Gus Poyet, and Tevez was signed. With a new coach and a superstar player allied to everything the club already had—Shenhua are one of the older clubs in Chinese football with a strong history; they've been Chinese champions—the hope was that they would kick on. But they started the season on a downer."
In February 2017, in the club's one-legged playoff in the AFC Champions League with Australian franchise Brisbane Roar, Shenhua lost 2-0 at home. Tevez did better in his league debut in Shanghai the following month, scoring a penalty and providing two assists in a 4-0 win against Jiangsu Suning, but then things went awry again.
Shenhua only picked up one point in their next three games before Tevez got a calf muscle injury. While Tevez was sidelined, the club won a couple of games on the bounce without him, including a 3-2 win at Changchun Yatai in which expatriate teammates Fredy Guarin and Giovanni Moreno both scored.
A media storm ensued when pictures were released of the injured Tevez at Disneyland in Shanghai with his family on the day his teammates were battling to defeat Changchun Yatai in the northeast corner of China. The optics looked dreadful.
"There was a sense that this guy says he's injured but here he is out enjoying himself with his family," says Church. "He's earning this huge salary. Why is he not on a treatment table getting treatment and recuperating? From very early on there was a sense from many fans and the media here that this guy is taking us for a bit of a ride.
"I've talked to people at the club and the mere mention of his name—this was back in the summer around June-July—would have them furious because the general sense was that he was unprofessional, that he wasn't serious. He wasn't coming in and doing what he was paid to do."
Tevez brought an entourage to China of 20 from Buenos Aires, excluding his family, per Matias Bustos Milla, a journalist with the Argentinian newspaper Clarin, but he struggled to acclimatise in China. "With the food, there are people who suffer a little more, and that happened to Tevez," Poyet said, per the Guardian. "We had a barbecue … and we had to remove the Chinese food."
According to Church, he looked "disinterested" on the pitch. He pined for home. Fans gave him the nickname "Homesick Boy." In early August 2017, the club allowed Tevez to go back to Argentina for treatment on his calf injury. He returned to China at the end of the month overweight, according to the club's new coach, Wu Jingui, per the Telegraph. He was later left out of the team for both legs of the Chinese FA Cup final, in which Shenhua defeated a Shanghai SIPG team featuring Hulk and Oscar.
"During his stay in Shanghai, he found a lot of excuses to go back to Argentina," says Ma Dexing, deputy editor-in-chief for Titan Sports, the most widely circulated sports magazine in China. "I think he was not happy when he played for Shanghai Shenhua. Maybe he played here just for money. The club gave him so much money."
Dexing says the fans were powerless to motivate him: "In China, the situation for professional football clubs is different to European clubs. In Europe, fans have a lot of influence about a club's decisions, but in China it is totally different. The fans have no influence over the club. The owners paid Tevez his money, not the fans. The fans may be angry, but they could do nothing."
The club's owners made public their frustration with Tevez in September 2017. Shenhua's chairman Wu Xiaohui complained in an interview with Shanghai TV about "a lack of winter training and match fitness" from his star player. "He didn't meet our expectations," said Xiaohui, per Goal.com.
Tevez responded a couple of days later with a damning critique of Chinese footballers' technique in an interview with French television station SFR Sport. "Chinese footballers are not as naturally skilled like South American or European players," he said, "like players who learned football when they were kids. They're not good. Even in 50 years, they still won't be able to compete."
The criticism stung. "His comment was criticised by so many Chinese players," says Dexing. "They asked him: 'Why did you come to China?' The players and the media criticised him so much. They said, 'The Chinese league wants quality players but you did not show your quality.'"
"I've talked to a lot of the coaches who work in Chinese football," Church added. "Privately they might tell you about concerns, but they try to project as positive an image as possible. It's about encouraging the most populated country on the planet to put in place the building blocks to become a genuine power within the game globally.
"Tevez was the highest-profile player in China. Not necessarily because of playing ability, but because of his track record of being troublesome when he was at Manchester City and the baggage that comes with him; he attracted a lot more attention than any other players who have come here. To have him come out and be critical of Chinese football was [disappointing]."
Tevez has a scorched-earth policy with several of his former clubs. He departed from Brazilian side Corinthians prematurely—after firing them to a league title in 2005—because of "broken promises" from the club, per These Football Times. At Manchester City, he absconded to Argentina on unauthorised leave for two months mid-season in 2011-2012, per the South China Morning Post.
He left Boca Juniors in December 2016 out "the back door," per La Nacion.
"The Boca fans felt it was a deception," says Bustos Milla. "When Tevez returned from Juventus in 2015, he said that he wasn't motivated by money—because he was making a lot more money in Europe—that money couldn't buy happiness. When a year-and-a-half later, he left to go to China for millions and millions of dollars, Boca's fans were enraged."
Tevez divides opinion in Argentina because of his ties to the country's biggest club, Boca. But instinctively Argentinians love him more, for example, than Lionel Messi, who is more introverted and from the lower-middle classes, a few rungs higher on the social ladder than Tevez.
Tevez is from Fuerte Apache, one of the poorest barrios in Buenos Aires. "Tevez is more charismatic. He dances when he scores. He smiles easily. It's easier to identify with him than it is with Messi," Bustos Milla said.
Argentinians are forgiving of his errant ways, Bustos Milla added. "When he was a young player at Boca, he also had issues and controversies. This comes from his upbringing. He comes from a very poor background. He didn't have a formal education. He left school very early. He's very emotional, more than he is rational. He's impulsive. It makes him fight with some trainers, but because of his charisma he believes he can solve everything with a smile, with a joke."
It's unlikely the Chinese Super League will be as understanding of his erratic behaviour. "Everybody is happy he has left Shanghai Shenhua," says Dexing. "Even his teammates are happy. He left a bad image of himself."
Dexing says, however, that the Chinese Super League's status has not been badly affected by the episode. It will recover. "Other foreign players like Dario Conca and Paulinho have been good. Everybody is happy about this. In the future when fans and the media will talk about Tevez, they will mention he was a bad example. He was a failure."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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