Chinese madhouse awaiting Anelka
Mystery finances and a chairman who picked himself to play against Liverpool... but French striker may just succeed
Wednesday 14 December 2011
Nicolas Anelka is a rich man who is about to get even richer when he leaves Chelsea next month and moves to his new side, Shanghai Shenhua ('Flower of Shanghai' in Mandarin). The trademark No 39 shirt has already been reserved for the Frenchman, and his new team-mates, and pretty much the entire population of Shanghai, are getting ready to roll out the red carpet for their new hero. That much is clear.
The mystery lies in where the funds for Anelka's reported weekly salary of £190,000 have come from. Shanghai have just endured a disastrous season that saw the club finish in 11th place in the Chinese Super League amid a sizeable exodus of players and management, and the sudden swelling of their coffers has come as a surprise, to say the least. Why has a club that very recently seemed to have no money suddenly signed a former France international and been linked to Didier Drogba? Why the sudden rumours about hiring blue-riband managers Jean Tigana and Roberto Donadoni?
The answers, as is standard in Chinese football, remain cloudy at best. The country's main sports outlet suggests that vast sums of money have been injected into the club via a government-owned company. All of this suggests some powerful backers are pushing for Shenhua to return to the top of Chinese football.
They last won the Super League in 2003, although that title has been shrouded in controversy after it was discovered last year that the head of the league's referees had bribed another official to favour Shenhua in a crucial fixture. Now there is a big push to ensure that Shanghai, in a city that feels entitled to success, win another title. Money will obviously play a part again but this time, its shadowy benefactors want success via the chequebook rather than the brown envelope.
Little of this will concern Anelka, of course. But he will have to put up with the behaviour of one of Shanghai's most controversial figures, Shenhua's chairman, Zhu Jun, an eccentric millionaire who made his fortune in the Chinese gaming industry.
The 45-year-old businessman has spent the last couple of days basking in the reflected glory of his new star player, knowing that his transfer coup has bought him time with a fan base that reviles him – and not without reason.
In 2007, Zhu, then the owner of another of Shanghai's football teams, Shanghai United, bought a controlling stake in Shenhua and immediately merged the two clubs together to the fury of both sets of fans. Zhu then sacked Shenhua's popular manager Wu Jing Gui in the same week that Wu's mother died.
Zhu did not stop there. In August 2007, shortly after the merger, Zhu named himself in the starting line-up in a pre-season friendly against Liverpool. The far-from-fit owner managed five minutes before he was replaced by the former Middlesbrough striker, Hamilton Ricard.
Last year he made the utterly false claim of having made a bid for the Merseyside club when they were put up for sale by Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Other gems include proposing to change Shenhua's blue kit to red and flirting with the idea of hiring Diego Maradona to coach the squad in the Asian Champions League, for which they had not even qualified, while leaving the Chinese Super League games to Miroslav Blaževic.
This season Zhu sold many of Shenhua's players midway through the season, causing the club to nosedive and take only one point from a possible 27 until a late rally at the end of the season saved them from relegation. He also decided to make the club play all of their CFA Cup games in Wuhu in Anhui province, a full four hours' drive from Shanghai.
Yet if Anelka can survive the madness of Zhu, he may find his time in Shanghai to be more than just a money-spinner. Despite the fan base being smaller than most clubs in the Premier League, it is arguably the most passionate in China and for a man who has played in Manchester and north London derbies, games against Beijing and Guangzhou will offer a similar fervour.
The playing squad is underwhelming, although the flying winger Feng Renliang was rumoured to be catching the eye of Tottenham Hotspur and the youth team at Shenhua has a proven record of producing technically gifted youngsters. But Chinese football has been waiting for a player to be its poster boy in the mould of David Beckham in the US and, in the unlikely figure of Anelka they may finally have their man. Quite how long the much-travelled Frenchman – this will be his ninth club – will stay remains to be seen.
The former Hibernian player Derek Riordan lasted four months in Xi'an and Paul Gascoigne four games at Gansu Tianma, but this feels different. With the financial and political backing, no matter how unexplained, Shanghai are being positioned to go for great things. Anelka could be in the right place at the right time.
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