When quizzed on the likelihood that he would be joined in Chinese football by his erstwhile Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba, striker Nicolas Anelka chose an analogy from the world of cinema. “It's like when you make a blockbuster movie,” said the former France international, now at Shanghai Shenhua. “Once a superstar like Jackie Chan commits, Jet Li will confirm his participation and then other actors will have faith in the film.”
While it is indeed the case that the number of star names populating the Chinese game is on the up, it is an established performer who arguably deserves top billing when the 2012 season kicks off in March. That man is 25-year-old Luiz Guilherme da Conceicao Silva, better known as Muriqui. Voted the league’s best player in 2011, the Brazilian also finished the season as the top flight’s 16-goal leading scorer in his club Guangzhou Yiyao’s successful charge to the title.
Just don't try and convince the player from Mangaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, that his performances merit the kind of star treatment afforded to the likes of Anelka. “My main objective is to help my team win titles. Only then will I start thinking about individual plaudits,” the attacker told FIFA.com, during his club’s pre-season trip to Spain. “It’s nice to get recognition for your work, but I need to keep training hard if I want to continue playing well.”
Seeking out the beach
Based in China PR for the past year and a half, the goalgetter who first rose to prominence at Rio outfit Madureira is keen not to take centre stage and risk driving a wedge between himself and his team-mates. And what better place to blend in with a crowd than Guangzhou, which has a population of over ten million?
“Everything’s been nice and calm,” said the Brazilian, whose best performances in his homeland came in the colours of Avai back in 2007, having previously also turned out for Vasco da Gama and Atletico-MG. “The population of China is huge, so you’re able to go about unnoticed at certain times. Normally the only people who recognise me are those who follow football really closely.”
So, ahead of embarking on his Asian adventure, along with his wife, how much did Muriqui know about the challenge awaiting him? “I didn’t know anything about football over here,” he said, before explaining how well he is taking to life in his new country.
“There’s loads to do here in your free time. When I’m not on club duty I tend to stay at home watching films or go to the shopping centre. But I also like to travel around, particularly to places near the beach. It’s really hot here for most of the year, and it’s a good city to live in. Guangzhou's good for me.”
Though clearly a laid-back character off the pitch, the forward’s displays mean he must now bear a heavy burden of expectation once he crosses that white line. Indeed, such is his standing among the Guangzhou Yiyao faithful that thousands of them now don Muriqui masks during games.
“The first time I saw that was on the internet, but I didn’t really understand what they were doing,” said the player, whose club have set the AFC Champions League as their main objective this season. “I only fully grasped what was going on when I arrived at the stadium for our next game and the fans in the stands were wearing the masks. It’s really exciting.”
Muriqui’s success has also served to strengthen Chinese clubs’ desire to bring in reinforcements from the Brazilian game. Indeed, his own club Guangzhou made the big-money signing of Fluminense’s Argentinian playmaker Dario Conca partway through last term, a move which contributed to them finishing all of 15 points clear of runners-up Beijing Guo’an.
Among the players following the pair along the path from Brazil to China PR in recent months have been ex-Vasco utility man Jumar, attacking midfielder Davi from Coritiba and former Santos, Cruzeiro and Benfica attacker Weldon. “I don’t think that these signings are due to my performances, it’s simply because of how talented Brazilian players are,” said the modest front-runner. “Brazil have always been big exporters of players.”
Nor is it just his countrymen that are making the journey, as the arrivals of Anelka and Conca confirm. “The Conca signing was very positive for Chinese football,” said Muriqui on his Argentinian club-mate, who was rumoured to have been made one of the world’s highest-paid players. “Let’s hope that clubs here are able to invest more and more,” he added as the conversation concluded.
Certain not to be intimidated by the new arrivals, however hefty their reputation and pay packets, Muriqui remains the league’s main man for the Guangzhou fans and close followers of Chinese football.