The Drogba Effect on Chinese Football (A Repost with updates)

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Picture courtesy of the Daily Mail

I was in Shanghai for a month and had promised myself that I would see a Shanghai Shenhua game.  I had missed two games already, but fortunately a fixture tweak meant that I would get one last opportunity to watch Drogba and co. as they took on Dalian Shide.   Come Saturday the 18th of August, I joined the rush on the metro to Hongkou Football Stadium.

Across from me stood 4 Chinese football fans, their blue jerseys betraying their affiliation to Shanghai Shenhua.  Speaking no  English, all I could do was smile and flash a thumbs up before saying the only word I guessed we had in common  – “Drogba!”.  They smiled, flashed a thumbs up in response before repeating the same – “Drogba!”  Dubbed the ‘Devil Beast’, he has instantly become an idol in Shanghai.  When the train stopped and we joined the alighting throng, on the backs of three of our ephemeral friends, ‘Drogba’ was plastered boldy across.  Not Anelka, not Gio Moreno; Drogba.  And this was no one-off.  At the stadium, there was a ‘Drogba’ for every other Shenhua shirt.  ‘Excited’ cannot quite communicate the sense of feverish expectation that surged through my body as we settled down for what I expected to be a thoroughly entertaining game.

The Expensive Arrivals

Drogba’s move to Shanghai Shenhua after leading Chelsea to Champions League victory is part of an increasing exodus of elite players and coaches to the land of the Rising Sun.  Marcelo Lippi teamed up with Dario Conca at league leaders, Guangzhou Evergrande in May, 2012.  Sergio Batista, Argentina’s ex-coach, was appointed to take over the Shenhua on a permanent basis after French Legend, Jean Tigana, was sacked by trigger-happy millionaire owner, Zhu Jun.

The signing of silky Columbian, Gio Moreno, from Racing Club in Argentina happened in June, shortly after Drogba’s was announced.  Add the arrivals of Nigerian striker, Yakubu, from Blackburn; Lucas Barrios, the Paraguayan formerly of German Champions, Borrussia Dortmund; and the Malians, Freddy Kanoute, formerly of Sevilla and former Barcelona midfielder, Keita, there is no denying that the Chinese Super League has gained a pedigree of truly quality footballers.

However, many commentators view see these transfers as the footballers taking the opportunity to enjoy a final pay packet while operating at a level far below what their reputations befit.  For many of these players, particularly those from the European Leagues, there is nothing more left to achieve.  Drogba sits among the top ten highest earning footballers in the world today, taking home over $300,000 a week.

In 2011, Dario Conca, then the reigning Brazilian footballer of the year, completed a move to China.  That in itself was not a surprise; he would not be the first footballer from outside the orient to move there.  Historically, Brazil boasts of the largest number of player exports to China outside of the Asian Federation.  Rather, it was his wages that caught the eye – at $12.5m annually; he is one of the highest paid footballers in the world.  In the words of his former coach, “he has secured a future for his family”; his wife recently gave birth to their first child in Guangzhou.

Yakubu, when pressed as to his reason for coming to China, said, “After hearing the club’s plans, I realised I had to join.  Money wasn’t a factor”.  He is earning over $150,000 at Guangzhou R&F, a more than 100% increase on his wages at Blackburn Rovers.  Money talks, Yakubu listened.  Clearly, the money on offer has played a key role in convincing these players to test waters largely uncharted by much of the rest of the football elite.

The Roots are Rotten

This poses the question – “With all the money flying about, what does the future bode for Chinese football?”  While Chinese FA policy decrees that teams shall not have more than 4 foreign players, one would expect that this limitation would result in greater emphasis on investment in youth development and grassroots football.  However, owners like Zhu Jun do not attempt to cloak their free-spending exploits under the charitable guise of ‘improving the Chinese game’.  With these clubs throwing large sums of money at foreign stars, it is poignant, and not totally surprising, that none of the clubs makes a profit.  Bankrolled by their wealthy patrons, there is pressure to deliver success.  And quick success too.  Zhu Jun, in an interview with the Financial Times, said, “It is not abnormal we change two coaches in one year as we do not have any long-term plan. We’re different from Europe.”  15 coaches in the last ten years bears testament to his approach.

This approach has had a knock-on effect on the development of youth football in China.  With the Chinese national football team already out of the running for the 2014 World Cup, the spectre of failure on the football field looms ever larger.  Rather than channel those funds used to buy and pay foreigners looking to consolidate their football pension schemes, there is a strong argument for developing the local game from the ground upwards.  State media has reported football officials acknowledging that as little as 100,000 children – in a country of over 1.2 billion – play any form of organised football.

Rowan Simmons, the writer of the book ‘Bamboo Goalposts’ which chronicles his attempt to develop grassroots football in China, unflinchingly sets out the core problems of Chinese football – “It’s certainly true that the likes of Anelka and Drogba turning up will increase interest in the game, but the problems in Chinese football are systemic; very few football pitches and virtually no infrastructure at the grass-roots level.”  Simmons himself estimates that there may only be as few as 80 football pitches in Beijing, capital and home to 20 million residents.

I can certainly testify to that.  While in Shanghai, I bought a football off Taobao, an ingenious China-alternative to ebay or amazon.  One can actually have live online-chats with the sellers.  Unfortunately, nobody told me that finding the space to play would be such a pain.  In a city like Shanghai which is playing economic catch-up with the rest of the world, no space has been spared.  One high-rise is followed by another – the city is a monument to China’s rapid financial development.

This has come at a cost to football though.  Green space is rare, so much so that I ended up not playing organised football for a month.  If indeed you were lucky to find an outdoor pitch, the price was likely to be prohibitive.  Close to my accommodation, there was a little stadium with one set of huge bleachers and a track around it.  It cost a bomb, 110 RMB (around $17 or 11 Pounds) for a single player in a 10-aside game on half of the pitch; by Chinese standards…sorry, by any standards, that is astronomical.

So what is the real Drogba Effect?

Zhu Jun, for all his bravado, cannot fill his stadium even though Drogba’s arrival has contributed to a significant rise in matchday attendances.  At his home debut on the 22nd of July, over 24,000 fans were present to welcome Drogba.  He duly did not disappoint, knocking in 2 goals and guiding the team to a 5-1 victory over awestruck opponents, Hangzhou FC.  Before that, results and attendances had stagnated with the team blundering in the lower reaches of the Super League.

Even with Anelka, attendances for home games fell as low as 11,000, with only 16,653 present for the Frenchman’s debut back in March.  Unquestionably, the high-profile arrival of Drogba has done much to reenergise the partisan support of the Shenhua.  “Drogba has helped make the Shanghai Shenhua team competitive overnight”, says Ma Dexing of Titan Sports Online, China’s largest sports web portal.

There is an element of untruth in that statement though.  While Drogba’s debut featured an avalanche of goals, Shenhua’s improvement has hardly been significant.  They have been as low as 12th in the league, and currently lie in 10th having picked up just 1 win in 6 games since Drogba debuted.   In fact, the Ivorien is their joint top goalscorer with 4 goals in 6 games – the season is 21 games old at the time of writing.  One or two star names, no matter how huge their profile is, cannot change the stark reality – by and large, the Chinese domestic game is suffering.

As Zac Lee Rig wrote on goal.com, Drogba’s success is dependent on how motivated he is.  So far, he has not disappointed.  He remains a key figure on the Ivory Coast national team as captain and their only world-class forward.

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Picture courtesy of the Daily Telegraph

Hence, as I settled down in the bowl of the Hongkou Stadium to watch Shanghai Shenhua take on Dalian Shide, I was expectant.  Official figures say there were 23,000 people there but there remained large swathes of the stadium which were empty throughout the game.  Not that it did anything to dull the fervent enthusiasm of the fans.  On opposite ends of the stadium, directly positioned behind both goals, Shenhua fans clad in their ubiquitous blue serenaded themselves with chants, reverberating the sound from one end to another.

In the humid heat, the crowd ramped up the volume when Drogba’s face came on the large stadium monitor.  His sniper-stare remained the same, his heavy brows furrowed in a look of intense concentration.  A few minutes later, the real thing walked out onto the pitch, fashionably last, volleying a ball in the air before jumping up to head another one, imaginary though.  The noise was deafening.  It was only when it all stopped that I realised I was a part of that noise; I hoarsely croaked to the German dude next me, “this is mental”.  He grinned back, bemused by the almost fanatical adulation accorded to an African in China.

The game ended 0-0, an anticlimactic painfully dull affair, only punctuated by brief moments of class and brute strength from Drogba.  Poor passing and even poorer tactical organisation was the order of the day.  On the sideline, Sergio Batista communicated with his players through a translator – the latter did the shouting.  Drogba’s every touch was greeted by manic cheering as the crowd grew expectant anytime the ball so much as moved in his general direction.  The Ivorien himself did not have the best of games, a lot of huff and puff disguising a toothless display.  However, his was not without endeavour, more than could be said for his fellow celebrity imports.  Gio Moreno flattered to deceive, attempting, and failing, nutmegs with frustrating regularity, while Anelka played with no heart, wearing the Captain’s armband but appearing as a man totally disinterested in the affairs on the pitch.  From my perspective, having  come to be entertained, the broad shortage of quality technical play, even from the ‘stars’, resulted in a feeling of being short-changed.

Hope?

“I hope to help promote Chinese football around the world”, the former Chelsea man said when he announced his move to Shanghai.  He has done that very effectively – despite my disappointment at the quality of football on display, I joined the hysteria and got a jersey as well.  Drogba’s effect is highlighted in increased home attendances for Shanghai Shenhua and a wider profile for the Chinese Super-League.  Despite the state-run sports system in which children are assigned sports, there yet remains hope that these arrivals could wring a more significant change – inspire a new generation of Chinese youth in football backed up by the support of the state.

When Manchester United came to Shanghai to play Shenhua in July, Shinji Kagawa’s presence was proof that with a sound system and the right amount of dedication, Asian players can play at a level with the best and could serve as inspiration as such.

Despite his relative success so far, Drogba is no saviour of Chinese football.  Neither is Yakubu nor Keita nor Conca.  They will play, make their bucks and leave.  If the state refuses to capitalise on the exposure and interest generated by these stars to develop a long-term plan to improve the Chinese game, that Chinese dream of winning the World Cup will remain just that – a dream.

**Updates**

Since the time this article was written, Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka have since returned to Europe with Galatasaray and Juventus respectively, unpaid wages a contributing significantly to their departures.  Meanwhile, David Beckham has recently signed on to be the Chinese Super League’s global ambassador, a rather undisguised attempt to rehabilitate a reputation which taken a corruption-inspired battering especially in the last year and a half.

**pictures courtesy of dailymail.co.uk & telegraph.co.uk**

By Raymond Utuk

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