If Al-Ahli go on to have a great season when the Saudi Professional League (SPL) kicks off next month, its fans may well look back on the signing of Paulinho as a turning point.
The three year-deal was announced on Friday and it is a big one for many reasons, not least because the Brazilian has been perhaps the best foreign player that the Chinese Super League has ever seen and if he can replicate that form in Jeddah then fans have much to look forward to. China’s loss is Saudi Arabia’s gain.
Those supporters will, of course, remember the midfielder more for his time with Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur and Brazil than for his exploits with Guangzhou Evergrande (now known just as Guangzhou FC) but his time in China is as instructive, not just because it is the most recent, but because it is so impressive.
As has been the case in Saudi Arabia over the years, plenty of big-name and expensive players have also arrived in China in recent times. Some have succeeded — such as Oscar and Hulk at Shanghai SIPG — and some have not, with Carlos Tevez’s time at Shanghai Shenhua a particular low. None have been as good, consistent or as influential as the 32-year-old who cost Barcelona more than $50 million just three years ago.
After a tough spell with Tottenham Hotspur, the former Corinthians star arrived in southern China in 2015, signed by Luiz Felipe Scolari just days after he had taken the job. Paulinho settled quickly and helped the team to the Asian title that year, defeating the Al-Ahli of the UAE in the final. In his first spell at Guangzhou, he scored 25 goals in 95 appearances from midfield, with set pieces a speciality, but his influence ran wider than that. He helped to organize the team, was a steady presence in the middle and, in short, was a leader on the pitch in a league where too many foreign players are happy to do “just enough.”
“As a coach, he is everything you want in a player,” said Scolari after the Asian title win. “He is a fantastic all-round talent, a great professional. I can trust him completely and I know all the players do too.”
His form earned a recall to the Brazilian national team in 2016, again not an easy feat when you are playing so far away. With the Selecao struggling in qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Paulinho returned and helped the team to win the next eight qualifiers. On a personal level, the high point came with a hat-trick against Uruguay in Montevideo, never the easiest place to go. Such form tempted Barcelona to spend big in 2017 and he helped deliver a league and cup double. There was a return to China in 2019 and, in his second spell, he played a little further up the pitch and subsequently scored 45 goals in 81 games, with an added 29 assists in total.
The fact that he is a free agent and cost Al-Ahli nothing does not reflect on Guangzhou’s desire to keep their star. Simply, he has been — like Talisca now at Al-Nassr — unable to return to the East Asian country from Brazil due to China’s strict entry requirements in the middle of a global pandemic. As he has been unable to play football since last November, Guangzhou reluctantly agreed to let him go and fans are sorry to see him leave but have been resigned to his departure for months.
That inaction means that it may take him time to find his feet in Saudi Arabia, but it is only a matter of time before the class starts to show. It is true that, at 32, he is no spring chicken and is not quite as box-to-box as he has been in his career, but the tempo in the SPL is also slower than it is in China.
It will be up to new Al-Ahli coach Besnik Hasi to decide how to use Brazilian star Paulinho
in a deeper role where he can protect the defense, as an outlet for balls from the back that start attacks or deploy him further up the pitch where he can use his considerable shooting skills and also create chances for others. Omar Al-Somah should be rubbing his hands in anticipation.
There were rumors of player discontent at Al-Ahli last season, a reason perhaps for the disappointing eighth-place finish, a performance not good enough for an Asian powerhouse. Paulinho is a consummate professional, a team player and a leader. His presence alone should give everyone a lift and while it may take a little time to shake off the rustiness, Al-Ahli will see the best of Paulinho sooner rather than later, and if he is half as influential in Saudi Arabia as he was in China then fans will be in for a treat.