Dreaded by defenders, Wei's a real cut above

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Wei Shihao has been a cut above in more than ways than one this season.

Wei Shihao of Guangzhou Evergrande points at his famous hairdo after netting in a 2-1 Chinese Super League victory over Hebei China Fortune on June 22. Xinhua

The Guangzhou Evergrande attacker's distinctive dreadlocks have sometimes attracted more sneers than cheers, but he's admirably answered his critics by letting his feet do the talking to prove he's worthy of the media glare.

Last month's strike against Hebei China Fortune in the Chinese Super League took Wei's tally to eight goals, coupled with five assists, in all competitions this term.

He celebrated that 60th-minute winner by pointing at his famous hairdo - but says fans needn't worry that the goals will dry up if the locks get the chop.

"Maybe after playing two to three more games, I'll change my haircut," Wei told Tencent Sports on Monday.

"It took me around seven to eight hours to get this style. I just sat there chatting with my friend and the barber did all the work.

"But I don't think the haircut has anything to do with my performances on the pitch. It's just about personal preference."

It's a preference that didn't exactly thrill Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro, who ordered a return trip to the barber for Wei if the goals didn't flow.

Wei credits Cannavaro's no-nonsense approach for his spike in form this season, which has taken Evergrande to the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League and the CFA Cup, as well as involvement in a three-way title fight at the top of the CSL standings.

"It's all because of Cannavaro who has given me great support, in every aspect of life and training since I joined the club," Wei said of the 2006 World Cup champion and Ballon d'Or winner.

"He gave me confidence and pushed me more in training sessions. I feel like he's more like a friend than a coach. But, given his achievements in soccer, it kind of feels like he's right about everything.

"He's very strict with the team, but he also gives me freedom. He criticizes me, of course. But he will encourage you when you lose your confidence, and cool your head down when you get cocky."

Cannavaro certainly appears to have had a maturing influence on Wei, who, as an under-23 player, found his first-team minutes limited at Beijing Guo'an before departing the capital for Evergrande this term.

It was far from a smooth transition, though, with Wei generating headlines for all the wrong reasons after his reckless lunge on Uzbekistan's Otabek Shukurov at March's China Cup broke the midfielder's leg.

That moment of madness sparked an outpouring of outrage from fans already incensed by China's miserable performances at the tournament in Nanning, where Cannavaro had taken temporary charge of the national team.

Evergrande suspended Wei for a month and ordered him to report to the club's human resources department to undergo "a deep self-examination".

Throughout the controversy and upon his return to Evergrande's starting XI, Cannavaro never gave up on the young star.

Now with Wei repaying his coach's faith, some are wondering if he can follow in the footsteps of international teammate Wu Lei, who enjoyed a successful debut season in Spain's La Liga after switching from Shanghai SIPG to Espanyol in February.

"As long as I have time, I'll watch Wu Lei's La Liga games," said Wei. "I look up to him and even envy him. It's La Liga after all. Not anyone can play in such a league."

Wei knows all too well how difficult playing abroad can be.

In 2013, he joined Portuguese club Boavista's youth academy and signed a two-year deal with the team in June 2014.

After struggling to nail down a first-team place at Boavista, moves to second-tier sides Feirense and Leixoes followed before Wei's time in Portugal ended when he was first loaned to SIPG and then bought outright by Guo'an, in 2018.

Wei has no regrets about his stint in Europe but feels he is still furthering his soccer education at home.

"I know there are voices that question if we play in the CSL just for the higher salary," he said. "But now it seems I made the right choice to return. I've improved quickly. If you cannot guarantee enough playing time in foreign leagues, it's much more helpful to play domestic games.

"The CSL is a place for players to grow. If you grow enough, you can play abroad - just like Wu Lei."

Cannavaro, though, has made it clear Wei is going nowhere.

"I'm very happy to say that Wei Shihao won't leave the team," the Italian said last week. "He is playing great and as long as I'm here, he won't go."

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