Shanghai (AFP) – China’s record goalscorer jumped to the defence Thursday of Yu Hanchao after champions Guangzhou Evergrande sacked the international winger for altering his Mercedes number plate.

Hao Haidong, who hit 40 goals in 106 games for China, accused Evergrande Group’s billionaire chairman Xu Jiayin of “treating players like tools”.

Yu is at the centre of controversy after Guangzhou, coached by Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, dismissed him on Tuesday hours after footage emerged of him changing an E to an F on his number plate.

It was unclear why the 33-year-old altered his plate, but reports have speculated he was trying to evade traffic restrictions limiting drivers based on their licence numbers.

The hashtag #EvergrandesackedYu was a trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, generating 430 million views and sparking fierce discussion.

Yu, who has been capped 59 times by China, faces 15 days in police custody and the Beijing News said his international career could be over.

His last appearance for his country was at the Asian Cup in the UAE in January 2019.

State media accused Yu of giving Chinese football a bad name, but the former striker Hao, who has 7.5 million followers on Weibo, wrote: “Please have some respect for labour laws, Yu Hanchao’s behaviour wasn’t that bad to be sacked.”

Above a picture of Evergrande chairman Xu shaking Yu’s hand, the outspoken Hao added: “And don’t treat your football players like tools.”

Gao Lin, another capped more than 100 times by China and Yu’s former team-mate at eight-time Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou, also weighed in on his behalf.

“He shouldn’t have done it but he did and accepted the punishment,” said Gao, now at Shenzhen F.C.

“We should forgive him and encourage him to behave better in future.”

However, state media was far less forgiving.

“Acts prohibited by law are a red line for any citizen and cannot be crossed,” thundered Xinhua news agency.

“Football players are public figures and even idols of many teenagers.

“Illegal and criminal acts are untouchable high-voltage lines.”