Whatever the reasons for Nicolas Anelka’s imminent transfer to Shanghai Shenhua – and one stands out above all others – raising the promotional image of Chinese football general will not be among the priorities.
The ‘Incredible Sulk’ is not expected to submit himself to the glad-handing promotional commitments undertaken by Zico and Gary Lineker in Japan in the mid-1990s or by David Beckham with LA Galaxy over the last three years in the United States.
This is no missionary voyage. It’s about bringing home some goals and trophies. Shenhua, for all of a comparatively long history – in Chinese football terms – have been consistent underachievers. This past season they were 11th in the table.
Talk of employing Stan Valckx as one of the first foreign CEO’s in Chinese football plus an approach to Jean Tigana as coach to replace Drazen Besek sounds promising but working in Chinese club football spells Challenge with a capital C.
To that extent Anelka will have it easier than any foreign coach or administrator. He just has to provide the self-contained football which has been his hallmark down a transfer-pocked career with Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, Manchester City, Fenerbahce, Bolton and Chelsea (albeit with a meagre 14 goals in 69 appearances for France).
Shanghai has a historical French connection but Anelka will not be living in the old French quarter. One assumes he will be esconced in one of the new satellite compounds which have been springing up around the city. He can enjoy the lifestyle while his personal connection with the place need only be minimal, if he so wishes.
Anelka is to be paid, for the duration of a two or three-year contract, more than he is picking up at Chelsea so the prospect of becoming the first big-name foreign import – Paul Gascoigne’s brief sojourn at Gansu Tianma in Western China does not really count – has obvious attractions.
Shenhua are one of the biggest names in Chinese football, a well-supported club by comparison with most in the 16-team super league, albeit in a country where even the most passionate fans can be quite dismissive of their national league after all the corruption and violence of recent years.
Their Hongkou stadium hosted the Women’s World Cup final in 2007 and is an English-style “close to the action” dedicated football ground, not a multi-sport running track affair. Capacity is 33,060 and the design style helps create a lively atmosphere. However, they no longer have any local rivals – in part because of their owner.
Zhu Jun was previously owner of Shanghai United, then bought Shenhua and merged the clubs under the longer-established brand (Shanghai International, another money-bags team who used to play in the soulless Shanghai Stadium moved to south/central China to make more money).
The ‘Blue Devils’ have two league titles to their name but both were in the part-time days of a decade or more ago and one had the fog of match-fixing claims all over it. If Anelka needs further insight he need only call Howard Wilkinson, one-time Leeds and caretaker England manager, who had a spell there.
Chinese clubs have reportedly spent around $300m in the past year in an attempt to raise their game in a country whose national team ranks 72 in the world and has only ever reached the World Cup finals once, back in 2002.
Shanghai Shenhua hope their fortunes will blossom over the next few years in line with Anelka’s bank account. After all, the club’s name translates as ‘Flower of Shanghai’.
By Keir Radnedge