SIPG at crossroads as Hulk says farewell

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Hulk leaps into action during an AFC Champions League match against Yokohama F Marinos last month in Doha. The Brazilian confirmed he will be leaving Shanghai SIPG after the Chinese side exited the competition thanks to a 2-0 last-16 defeat to Vissel Kobe on Monday.  [Photo/Xinhua]

The rebuilding project that awaits Shanghai SIPG was brought into sharp focus on Wednesday as Brazilian star Hulk waved the club farewell following a trophy-less season to forget for the Chinese Super League side.

"Today is the day to say goodbye to Shanghai SIPG, a team that made me feel at home. In over 4 years, I am very grateful to the fans who welcomed me very well," Hulk wrote on social media after a 2-0 last-16 defeat to Japan's Vissel Kobe ended SIPG's involvement in this season's AFC Champions League.

"To the club and to the players, thank you for sharing so many years of work and dedication. Together we had countless achievements, but we also had moments of overcoming difficulties. We trusted each other with a lot of unity and will to win. My heartfelt thanks to the Shanghai SIPG family."

The 34-year-old Hulk has been key to SIPG's success in recent years after arriving in a 55 million euro ($66 million) deal from Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2016. The former Brazil international has justified that sizable fee by scoring 76 goals in 145 matches, helping SIPG win its maiden CSL title in 2018 as well as the 2019 Chinese Football Association Super Cup.

According to reports, Palmeiras are among at least three Brazilian clubs interested in signing Hulk. He is also reportedly being targeted by clubs in the US, Europe and the United Arab Emirates.

As well as being a big hit with the fans, Hulk was also hugely popular with teammates.

"Loved playing on the field with you. All the best for the future," SIPG's Austrian forward Marko Arnautovic posted on Weibo, accompanied by a picture of himself alongside Hulk.

Midfielder Shi Ke wrote on Weibo: "I feel fortunate to have met you, and there's no regret when we have to say goodbye. It doesn't matter how far you will go, I wish you the best of luck in the future."

Hulk's popularity in the dressing room, however, did not extend to SIPG coach Vitor Pereira. The burly forward's erratic performances during the pandemic-delayed 2020 season, when he managed just six goals and zero assists, did not go down well with the Portuguese.

Pereira's critical comments of his team following its 3-2 CSL semifinal defeat to eventual champion Jiangsu Suning in November were interpreted as being aimed at Hulk.

Tension between the pair came to a head when Hulk appeared to rant at Pereira as he stormed down the tunnel after being substituted in the 1-0 AFC Champions League defeat to Yokohama F Marinos late last month.

Hulk subsequently found himself starting on the bench for the next four games in Doha, where matches are being played in a bio-secure bubble.

"I want the players with the right attitude to play," said Pereira following SIPG's 4-0 defeat to Sydney last week. "This is my decision (not to play Hulk) and that is why he is not here."

Despite his lackluster finale with the club, Hulk's departure undoubtedly weakens SIPG's squad, leaving the club in a daunting situation.

"There will be much uncertainty for SIPG in the 2021 season. But looking back over the club's history, it's not the first time they've had to rebuild the team," read a commentary by the Shanghai Observer.

"For the past two seasons, Pereira was successful, but he has also faced problems. On the one hand, he's unable to control big stars like Hulk, and he's still not finished building an attacking system for the team...While the coach could not bring something new to the team, should the club still trust the coaching team or change to someone new?"

Pereira's ability to reinforce with expensive foreign talent has been hamstrung by new CFA regulations that limit clubs' spending on transfer fees and wages, with even stricter salary caps reportedly on the way next year.

After the 2019 season, the CFA introduced a salary cap of 3 million euros ($3.3 million) after tax on foreign players. The salary cap for domestic players is now at 10 million yuan ($1.43 million) before tax, or 12 million yuan for China internationals.

But according to Xinhua, CFA president Chen Xuyuan plans to introduce stricter measures and further reduce players' salaries in order to safeguard the financial health of Chinese soccer.

Hulk's departure, it seems, signals an end to the CSL's days of lavish spending.

"Hulk is the foreign star that stayed at SIPG for the longest time. With honor and an irreproducible high income, he left the club marking an end to the spending spree of Chinese professional soccer," read an commentary by

"From 2015, Chinese professional soccer started the big-spending era and now it's about to end. Hulk had been at the forefront of the league during that period, and now that his journey has ended at SIPG, this also symbolizes the end of an era for Chinese soccer."

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