Our man amidst the muddied oafs tells us that Didier Drogba, the Ivorian Coast football star, received an enthusiastic reception at Pudong airport (above) when he arrived to join his new club, struggling Shanghai Shenhua. Drogba is the latest of a number of highly paid foreign stars, albeit mostly past the zenith of their careers, to ply their trade in the China Super League. The league is seeking both to restore some of the lustre lost in a widespread corruption and match-fixing scandal and to improve its low playing standards. Drogba will earn a reported 1.9 million yuan ($300,000) a week for such reconditioning services.
Though Drogba’s earnings are not our of line for a top player, we remain bemused by the convention of quoting footballers’ pay as weekly wages as if these young multimillionaires were still tradesmen. Drogba will be earning the equivalent of 90 million yuan a year. That is 3,600 times the average salary of a Chinese migrant worker. It is also, according to a report on the BBC, four and a half times Shanghai Shenhua’s annual income from ticket sales and advertising, which was just 20 million last year.
Wealthy individuals are being encouraged to take over the Super League’s clubs and infuse them with transforming cash, Zhu Jun, the colourful Irish-Chinese online video gaming millionaire in Shanghai Shenhua’s case. Drogba, and his teammate France international, Nicholas Anelka, will be no strangers to that. Both are former employees of Chelsea, the English Premier League club and current European champions, whose purchase by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003 triggered the latest inflationary round of billionaires flashing their cash at Europe’s top clubs.
So concerned is UEFA, European football’s governing body, that such concentrations of private wealth in a few clubs will destroy the competitiveness of the professional game in Europe–and with it UEFA’s golden goose–that it is planning to introduce financial fair play rules to limit clubs from spending more than they earn. If rich owners continue to subsidize the game in China, the Super League, too, will eventually have to face up to the same issue. Of course, there has to be a competitive league in the first place to destroy.
There is one reason, though, that that day of reckoning may be put off for a while. Beijing harbours hopes of hosting FIFA’s World Cup in 2026 or, more realistically, in 2030. The announcement of the winning hosting bids will likely be in 2018, and success would be a feather in the cap of President presumptive Xi Jinping, reputedly a keen football fan, towards the end of his term office. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 suggest there is little doubt that China could stage football’s showpiece event, but neither Beijing nor FIFA would want the embarrassment of a poor performance and early exit by the China national team. As ever, money, politics and sport are close bedfellows.
Footnote: As so many highly paid professional footballers profess, Drogba says his latest move isn’t about the money, but playing in China “for a whole new experience.” We, too, think we could enjoy pretty much any new experience for 1.9 million yuan a week, and it wouldn’t be about the money for us, either. Honest.