One migrant worker is on the move ahead of New Year, but won’t be coming back. Nicholas Anelka, the French footballer who joined Shanghai Shenhua at the beginning of 2012, is returning to Europe. He is moving to Juventus of Turin after playing just 22 games for the Shanghai club. Shenhua finished the season ninth in the Super League. The sulky striker scored just three goals, and failed to fulfill the hopes that he would be among a wave of star names to revive the league as it recovered from corruption and match-fixing scandals.
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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.
Another sign, possibly, of the shifting sands of power from west to east. For a few years now aging European football stars have looked to the U.S. for a lucrative contract to see out their careers. One thinks of Beckenbauer and Chinaglia in the 1970s and Beckham and Henri more recently. This Bystander now sees reports that the 32-year-old French forward, Nicholas Anelka, who plays his club football for Chelsea, is in discussions to join Chinese Super League club, Shanghai Shenhua, on a three-year 60 million yuan deal (update: club says the deal is done). Another former France international, Jean Tigana, is reported to have been hired to coach the club. Ten of the head coaches at the 16 Super League clubs are foreigners, including Tigana’ compatriot, Philippe Troussier, at Shenzhen Ruby.
Shanghai Shenhua dropped to 11th last season in the Super League after being in the top five for the previous six seasons. The club is owned by Zhu Jun, founder of The9 Ltd, a Nasdaq-listed online games company. Zhu is a colorful character, to say the least, who once made his manager play him in an exhibition match against the British club, Liverpool. He is notorious for falling out with his players, so Anelka should fit right in. Zhu is also being sued by the Argentine football legend, Maradona, for alleged infringement of his image rights in a The9 game, Winning Goal.
One striker doesn’t make a spring, of course, and Anelka may prove to be the exception that proves the rule. Yet, if he does arrive as expected, he will augment a forward line that relies on the Argentine Luis Salmerón for its goals since Zhu sold some of the club’s best players. The sulky striker should also provide a diversion from the clean-up of the corruption and match-fixing scandal that has plagued the league. And if the Frenchman does prove to be a pathfinder, it would do no harm to Chinese football’s ambition to host the FIFA World Cup in 2026.