Mousa Dembele became the latest high-profile name to swap Europe for China when he left English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur and joined Guangzhou R&F on Thursday.
The 31-year-old Belgian international will cost the Chinese Super League (CSL) club about 12 million euros ($13.5 million) and he can expect to receive a significant hike in wages.
Dembele, who could soon be joined in China by West Ham United’s Marko Arnautovic, is regarded as one of the finest midfielders in the Premier League when fit.
But his appearances have become increasingly limited in recent seasons because of injury. “Now it feels like my family, part of my family,” Dembele told Spurs TV, reflecting on his departure after six-and-a-half years at the Premier League title challengers. “I go away with an unbelievable feeling and with a certain love for the club.” Spurs said the transfer was subject to international clearance, which should be a formality.
In February last year, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino described Dembele as being on a par with Diego Maradona. “I have said before that he is a genius of football,” said the Spurs boss at the time.
But Dembele has been restricted to just seven starts for the London club this season because of an ankle ligament problem and Pochettino is looking to off-load fringe players.
Dembele, who has more than 80 caps for Belgium, joined Tottenham in August 2012 from Fulham and in his pomp was a dynamic fulcrum in their midfield, as well as a crowd favourite.
He started his career in his native Belgium before moves to Willem II and AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands.
– Arnautovic next to China? –
Dembele’s signing represents a coup for R&F — but also a risk, given his fitness problems. The club are not one of China’s traditional heavyweights and flirted with relegation from the CSL last season before finishing just below mid-table. Their coach is the former Yugoslav great Dragan Stojkovic.
“Our club believes that as a world-class football star, Dembele’s joining will definitely enhance the overall strength of the team,” Guangzhou R&F said in a statement.
Volatile West Ham forward Arnautovic, 29, is agitating for a move to China and was the subject of a reported 35-million-pound ($45-million) offer from an unnamed CSL club last week.
Although the Hammers declared the Austria international not for sale, the player’s agent and brother Danijel said the player had a “great desire that West Ham accept the offer”.
Shanghai SIPG are the side said to be interested and have reportedly offered Arnautovic a wage packet of 200,000 pounds per week over a four-year deal.
Brazilians Oscar, Hulk and Alexandre Pato have all joined Chinese clubs in the last couple of years for large fees and on inflated wages. Argentine international stalwart Javier Mascherano left Barcelona for Hebei China Fortune a year ago, although Chinese authorities have moved to dampen the domestic transfer market.
Former Chelsea star Oscar played a major role helping Shanghai SIPG to their first title when they won the latest CSL season, which ended in November. The new season begins in the spring.
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