South America's returning Chinese Super League stars under scrutiny
Rounds five and six of South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign take place later this month. The previous two rounds were played in November -- and the global game has moved on since then.
One of the big developments of the last few months has been the Chinese spending spree. South American players have featured on the shopping lists of many clubs in China -- which has left the continent's coaches with something of a dilemma. Do they bring their players all the way back from the Far East?
Colombia's Jose Pekerman has already given a strong indication that neither striker Jackson Martinez nor midfielder Fredy Guarin will be named in the squad to take on Bolivia and Ecuador. Pekerman has specifically referred to the travelling time that would be necessary to bring them back from China -- too debilitating, he feels, for them to be operating at full potential in the most competitive World Cup qualifiers on the planet.
It is, perhaps, a relatively easy decision for Pekerman to take. Both Martinez and Guarin have played in the current campaign, but neither are key players. There has always been a feeling that Pekerman was not fully convinced by Martinez and Guarin, though he strikes the ball well, has been more smoke than fire in his international career.
Had he not sustained an injury over the weekend, it's highly likely that Miller Bolanos would have take the field for Ecuador in the afternoon heat of Barranquilla on March 29 versus Colombia. In this surprising campaign -- Ecuador have won all four matches -- Bolanos has been ever present. The support striker was caught up in a January transfer window soap opera, with his club side Emelec putting out feelers and waiting for offers.
Shortly before the window closed it seemed certain that Bolanos would be joining the Chinese exodus. But then national team coach Gustavo Quinteros got in touch.
The player and coach have a special bond -- it was Quinteros who unlocked the potential of Bolanos at Emelec and then took him into the national team. And Quinteros made it clear that a move to the Far East would not be good for the player's international career. The move to China quickly fell through, and Bolanos signed for Gremio in Brazil.
Argentina, meanwhile, have a decision to make over winger Ezequiel Lavezzi. The winger has played in all four of his country's matches in the current campaign. Will coach Gerardo Martino keep him in the squad and call him all the way back from China? He might well see Lavezzi's move Far East as an opportunity to fast-track some of Argentina's younger generation of attackers, such as Pablo Dybala and Angel Correa.
Brazil coach Dunga, though, has already made his position clear. He was the first coach to name his squad for the coming matches -- Brazil host Uruguay and then visit Paraguay. And he has retained midfielder Renato Augusto and centre back Gil, both of whom swapped domestic champions Corinthians for Chinese football in January.
Dunga noted, however, that these players will now be seen by the public with a certain suspicion; any slip ups will be attributed to their presence in a league still seen as on the periphery of the global game.
Brazilian players have long been favoured transfer targets of Chinese clubs. The mass exodus in January was by no means the first movement in this direction. Two previous members of Dunga's squad, strikers Diego Tardelli and Ricardo Goulart, had already gone east. Goulart was a reserve, but the mobile Tardelli was briefly first choice in what has become a problem position at centre-forward. He was an interesting option -- but soon after the move to China he was quietly discarded.
Will it be any different in the case of Renato Augusto? The tall, elegant midfielder made a difference to the team when he was introduced for the last round at home to Peru. His passing from deep gave Brazil a dimension they had been missing. His long term future, though, is always a doubt; he has a worrying injury record, which, as he had the honesty to admit, was the overwhelming reason for accepting the offer from China. Dunga clearly needs to investigate other options, but for the time being Renato Augusto brings something useful to the squad.
The case of Gil is perhaps more political. He played in the match against Peru, covering for the suspended David Luiz. But he is not seen as a likely first choice, especially with the development of the promising Marquinhos. So why bring Gil all the way back from China?
Surely the explanation here has something to do with the rift between Dunga and Thiago Silva -- a centre-back so outstanding that he was included by Brazil captain Neymar in an ideal 5-a-side team. Dunga, though, is unconvinced, troubled by what he perceives as the player's emotional weakness. His first act as coach was to strip Thiago Silva of the captaincy and leave him on the bench, and after a year he was left out of the squad altogether.
Rather than help a superb player perform to his potential, Dunga prefers to reject him. Leaving out Gil, then, would mean calling up another centre-back instead of Thiago Silva -- a decision that would be hard to explain on technical grounds, and would open up plenty of controversy. Dunga opted to oblige Gil to clock up the air miles, even if he is going to sit on the bench.
It is because of this type of conduct that Dunga took a big right hand from Tostao, a 1970 great and Brazil's wisest football pundit. In his newspaper column on Sunday, Tostao wrote: "I see Dunga increasingly a hostage of his dogmatism, petty little rules and his incapacity to see anything apart from the mirror."
Thus, the matches against Uruguay and Paraguay could well make or break Dunga's second stint in charge of the Selecao.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.