Didier Drogba: China in his hands
He has sealed a lucrative deal to head East. But the club is in turmoil on the pitch and being heavily criticised off it. By Andrew Crawford in Shanghai
Didier Drogba must be delighted to have joined the Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua in a lucrative deal confirmed yesterday that will make him one of the best-paid athletes in Asia – but let's hope he's done his homework, for all is not as rosy at his new club as it would seem. A two-and-a-half-year contract worth £187,000 a week will help, but will it all end in tears?
Shenhua have been after Drogba since they signed another Chelsea forward, Nicolas Anelka, in December, as eye-watering sums of money began to seep into the Chinese game. Shenhua have shown they are willing to pay top dollar to acquire household names regardless of their age and the arrival of the 34-year-old Ivorian in Shanghai represents another milestone in the development of the nine-year-old Chinese Super League.
"I have studied all the offers I had and I have the feeling that going to Shanghai is the right direction for me," Drogba said. "I am looking forward to that challenge and to discover a new culture. I hope to help promote Chinese football around the world and further improve the links between China and Africa."
For Shenhua, the transfer could not have come at a better time. After a dreadful start to the season that led to an ugly coup to remove the manager Jean Tigana as the team recorded two wins in their first 10 games, Drogba's new paymasters are 12th in the league, just three points above the relegation zone. They were once thought of as potential champions, but dreams of a title challenge are long dead and instead the club will be hoping that their new signing can push them up the table, in search of a top-three position and Asian Champions League football in 2013.
The big subplot in the Drogba saga will be how the new recruit might get on with his former strike partner. Anelka has had a disappointing start to the season and has not scored since April. Beyond his lethargic performances on the pitch, the mercurial Frenchman has also been a combustible force within the dressing room, publicly railing against the club's tactics and what he saw as a lack of options in midfield. After he was made captain upon his arrival in Shanghai, Anelka's star power has allowed him significant sway within the club. But there is now speculation over how he will respond to the arrival of a new alpha male.
Shenhua, ultimately, will not care how their two marquee names get along, so long as they can form a productive strike partnership and rescue a traditional powerhouse from a humiliating start to the season. Shenhua's Chinese players have seemed overwhelmed by expectations while, besides Anelka, Shenhua's other foreign recruits have been found either from within China or picked up cheaply from leagues in Serbia and Qatar.
Currently, Anelka is partnered up front by Joel Griffiths, a former Beijing Guoan striker who made two substitute appearances for Leeds United in 2006 before gaining notoriety back in his native Australia after punching a linesman in the testicles. The two strikers have four goals combined all season while as a team Shenhua have scored nine times in 13 games – only the bottom side, Qingdao Jonoon, have found the net less often.
The team has also struggled to find a consistent presence on the touchline. Sergio Batista, last seen managing Argentina, is Shenhua's fourth manager this season and the halfway point of the season is still two games away.
Moreover, Drogba's arrival in Shanghai represents the last card that Shenhua's unpopular owner, Zhu Jun, has to play. The video game mogul has revelled in his role as Pied Piper to the world's sports pages but his empty boasts about bringing the world's best players to Shanghai have angered a fan base that has already seen season-ticket prices increase by 150 per cent this season.
Yet for all of Zhu's bragging, the Shanghainese native has been notably quiet on the source of the transfer funds. This almost certainly means that, like Anelka, Drogba's signature has been made possible thanks to funding from government-backed companies within the city. Such powerful friends will be stressing to the club that this is not house money they are playing with. Following the costly termination of Tigana's contract and the team's poor form after a pre-season in which expectations were raised through the roof, Zhu will not want to be associated with a humiliating and very public waste of state money if he wants to remain welcome in the city. Results have to change, and quickly.
With the big names and improbable storyline, events at Shanghai Shenhua have all the makings of a summer blockbuster. Whether it plays out as a big-budget thriller with a Hollywood ending or a grisly disaster movie depends entirely on whether two ageing strikers have enough left in the tank for one last show-stopping performance.
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