Sport & Culture

Is China’s Football Boom Already Over?

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Sport & Culture

Is China’s Football Boom Already Over?

Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba have left Shanghai Shenhua, raising questions about soccer in China.

Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, who made headlines around the world when they signed with Shanghai Shenhua in 2011 and 2012, respectively, have left the club after struggling to get paid.

After leaving Shanghai, the two stars had no shortage of options. This week, Anelka has signed on with Italian giant Juventus, while Drogba joined Istanbul’s Galastasaray in a signing that has been described as the biggest in the history of Turkish football.

Their time in Shanghai may have been short, but it was eventful. And while the episode does not reflect well on Chinese football, it is too early to write the obituary just yet.

To date, much of the money that has been flowing into Chinese football has come from local real estate companies. Guangzhou Evergrande is a prime example. Evergrande Real Estate’s open purse strings have taken that team from the second tier to two successive national titles. It is pursuing Asian glory with a star-studded squad led by head coach Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to victory in the 2006 World Cup.

Shanghai Shenhua, however, was different. During the stints of Drogba and Anelka, the club was run on the whims of one man: Zhu Jun. Zhu, who made his money from online gaming, is often described as ‘flamboyant’, which is code for doing things like selecting himself as one of the starting eleven for a prestigious, pre-season friendly match against Liverpool.

Zhu wanted even greater control over the club, but was stymied by other major shareholders. In response, he withdrew his money, which left Drogba and Anelka struggling to receive their mega salaries.

Shanghai Shenhua’s future is now uncertain. The club is in danger of being torn apart as Zhu could decide to walk away completely, taking his money with him. Or, as he has threatened in the past, Zhu could move the club to another part of China.

This leaves the rest of China to get on with things sans their two biggest stars, something that could be a blessing in disguise. While there is no doubt that Anelka and Drogba significantly raised the league’s profile, their presence meant that the chaos in the club has been heavily reported. Yet the dramas in Shanghai do not represent the game as a whole in China.

This does not mean that the rest of Chinese football is perfectly run, but teams like Guangzhou and Beijing Guoan, to name a few, are infinitely better-managed than Shanghai Shenhua has been. These teams would have provided the world with a much better image of the Chinese Super League.

On the downside, the departure of the pair may reduce the number of international reports about the league. On the other hand, it could allow the other teams in the league to go about their business in a much quieter environment.