Javier Mascherano joins Hebei China Fortune after Barcelona exit
Javier Mascherano will reunite with Manuel Pellegrini at Hebei China Fortune after Barcelona and the Chinese Super League side announced they had concluded the transfer of the Argentina international on Wednesday.
Mascherano, a two-time UEFA Champions League winner, becomes the first big-name arrival into Chinese football during the current transfer window after authorities in the country imposed regulations to limit spiraling transfer fees for foreign players.
The 33-year-old had a ceremony held for him in Barcelona on Wednesday morning, at which the club bid him farewell.
"After discussions with FC Barcelona and the player, we hereby announce that the Argentina captain Javier Mascherano has officially joined Hebei China Fortune Football Club," Hebei's statement read. "He will wear the No. 14 shirt in the new Chinese Super League season. We warmly welcome him and hope he can lead the team to a higher level."
Barcelona confirmed Mascherano's departure on their website after seven-and-a-half years with the club and he will link up with Pellegrini, his former coach at River Plate, on Friday after signing a two-year contract.
The transfer fee is believed to be €5.5 million, which is just under the RMB45 million threshold imposed by Chinese football authorities. Fees above that figure incur a 100 percent levy.
Barcelona said later on Wednesday that new signing Philippe Coutinho will take Mascherano's No. 14 shirt.
Mascherano joins a club that finished fourth in last season's Chinese Super League, narrowly missing out on a place in this year's AFC Champions League but who are among the favourites to claim the title in the upcoming season, which kicks off in March.
Speaking at his leaving event, which was attended by Barca's first team squad, Mascherano said he had no regrets about bringing his seven-and-a-half years at Camp Nou to an end.
"The moment had arrived," he said. "I had to take this decision. Time has been the biggest indicator that I was losing my importance in the team. It was making things more difficult. I didn't want to put the club in a difficult position, so this was the decision.
"Sometimes you have to accept the reality. I'm not the player I was. It's normal, natural. I needed to make this change. I didn't feel like I could revert the situation here. The quality of the centre-backs in the team is so high."
Despite being ready to leave, Mascherano, who will retire from international football after this summer's World Cup, admitted it's still difficult to walk away from one of the biggest clubs in the world.
"The hardest thing about playing for Barcelona is that you know that one day you will have to leave," he added. "I feel privileged, fortunate for everything I have been able to experience here. I never imagined I would stay here for so long and be part of the club's history.
"No one moment or trophy will stay with me, but just the day-to-day experience of being at this club, whose values are transmitted around the world. I have enjoyed unique moments and been lucky to play with the players that I've played alongside. It has been a dream."
President Josep Maria Bartomeu thanked Mascherano for everything he has given to his club and said that while it's sad to see him leave, the door will be open if he wants to return in the future.
"I'm happy for you, Masche, for the new challenges you will take on," Bartomeu said. "But I am also sad to lose a person like you. It's not easy to know when to leave a club and you have taken the decision professionally, just like when you arrived from Liverpool.
"It worked out well for you because you've won 17 trophies and are a reference in the dressing room, at Camp Nou and among the fans. This is your club, Javier. When your new experience ends, this is your home. You must return. We're waiting for you as a coach."
Information from Michael Church was used in this report.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.