Paulinho to Guanzhou Evergrande: A Normal Return or Money Laundering?

DISCLAIMER: It is important to note that FC Barcelona have denied any wrongdoing in regards to the Paulinho transfer. ADELTE group have also issued a statement denying the relation between a project in China and the Barcelona transfer deal.

A year ago, Paulinho signed for Barcelona from Guangzhou Evergrande, and the world laughed. However, after a quality season, where he scored 9 goals and played a key role in Ernesto Valverde’s doblete-winning side, we learned that he wasn’t the terrible player we expected him to be. Today, we learned that he will be returning to Guangzhou Evergrande on loan for a season from Barcelona. Is this the case of immediate return, or do hidden motives lurk beneath the surface?

When the Brazilian signed for Barcelona, Culés and football fans alike were left scratching their heads. Rumors had linked the Catalan club with midfielders such as Miralem Pjanić and Jean Michael Seri, but apparently Paulinho was the pick of the bunch. Barça’s midfield, which needed reinforcing and restructuring, seemed to gain no benefit from the transfer, which frustrated fans due to the variety of options on the market. Immediately after the deal’s confirmation, vines circulated on Twitter showing the midfielder during his days with Spurs, particularly his numerous fails. Given the transfer fee, which was about €40M, Culés had their faces in their palms, admonishing the board for its incompetence and stupidity. It was around this time that the #BartomeuDimiteYa hashtag began to circulate among the Barça community.

Paulinho’s one season at the club surpassed expectations, but that might be because everyone expected nothing. For one, the Brazilian was the diametrical antithesis to the prototypical Barcelona midfielder. In your head, imagine Xavi – a midfielder who exudes class and composure, fits the possession playstyle mold perfectly, and whose lack of mobility is overshadowed by pinpoint passing. Now think about Paulinho, a player who exhibits none of these traits. He is a box-to-box midfielder, more brute than finesse, and one can begin to see why fans had doubts about the transfer. Given his failure to fit the Barcelona mold, and the style of La Liga in general, he performed surprisingly well. He was not a vital component to the team’s success, but his role in Valverde’s rotations was crucial, and his athleticism came good multiple times for the Catalans. He ended the season with nine goals and three assists, but it’s hard to argue that his performances justified his high price tag.

Although his critics may have been silenced, partially at least, Paulinho had bigger things to worry about after Barcelona’s season, mainly a World Cup call-up for Brazil. But when the yellow and blue came crashing out in the quarterfinals, rumors began emerging that the Catalan club had received numerous offers for the 29-year-old. Quickly, Barcelona fans called for his exit, hoping to make a decent return off of him. Furthermore, his sale would free up another non-EU space for the club, which would allow for the signature of a different Brazilian, Arthur. Both Barcelona and Guangzhou Evergrande have confirmed that the deal is a one-year loan with an option to buy, and it will cost the Chinese club €100M (€50M to Barcelona, €50M to the Chinese government for youth development). Somehow, Barcelona have managed to make a profit on a midfielder nobody wanted, whilst also seeing him exceed expectations. This is either one major stroke of luck, or Barcelona have a genius negotiator.

The BBC called Paulinho’s initial move to Barcelona “one of the more random transfers of recent times,” and that may be an understatement. However, a deep look into the politics and personal interests of Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu may give us more insight into the transfer. Despite Bartomeu’s insistence that the transfer was a “purely footballing decision” and that Paulinho was a target identified by the club’s technical staff, fans were outraged by the possibility that the transfer might’ve been influenced by the president’s personal business dealings.

Bartomeu’s company ADELTE is an engineering organization based in Barcelona that is focused on delivering innovative solutions for airports, seaports, and roads. Recently, the group has been focused on expanding its markets in Asia, especially in mainlaind China. On the other side of the deal is the Evergrande Group, China’s second-largest property developer (by sales). They have an ongoing construction project called Ocean Flower Island, an artificial archipelago featuring theme parks, malls, and luxury housing. It was speculated that the ADELTE group was offering its services to the Evergrande Group for the project, whilst Florentino Perez’s own company was also in the running. Therefore, the initial Paulinho signing may have served as mere confirmation that Bartomeu’s company would be contracted by the Evergrande Group. In Bartomeu’s world, Paulinho might just be his token for a massive money laundering scheme. Wherever the truth lies, the interactions between FC Barcelona and Guangzhou Evergrande appear suspicious to many.

While we speculate about the true intentions of the Paulinho signing, we must not forget about the player himself. Yes, he may have been used for Bartomeu to further his personal business interests, but his short time with the Catalans was defined by an utmost respect for the club’s values and a dedication to the badge. Paulinho demonstrated true professionalism in his single year in Spain, exceeding expectations and helping Valverde to a domestic double. Paulinho is just a man, and on behalf of all Barcelona fans, I’d like to thank him for his honorable service and the club and wish him, his wife, and his two children all the best in China.

By: Brandon Duran

Photo: Guanzhou Evergrande