When he arrived at Shanghai’s Pudong airport on Saturday, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba was greeted as a savior. Fans of his new team, Shanghai Shenhua, mobbed the 34-year-old Ivory Coast star, chanting his name, shooting photos with their phones and waving Ivory Coast and Shenhua flags before he hopped into a black BMW with the team’s director. Later in the day, Drogba said at a press conference that his move was about more than his reported $300,000-a-week salary, which would make him one of the highest-paid players in the world. “Money is not the most important,” he said, the Associated Press reported. “I am here for a whole new experience.”
China, the world’s biggest exporter, is now becoming a key importer of 30-something-year-old soccer stars, and Shanghai is the leading destination. At the beginning of this year, Shanghai Shenhua signed Nicolas Anelka, Drogba’s former Chelsea teammate, to help propel it to the top of the Chinese Super League. During his first game, against rivals Beijing Guoan, Anelka scored and then raced to the visitors’ end to celebrate with a small contingent of fans who traveled to the capital. But the team lost 3-2, and Shenhua has been lackluster ever since. It is now ranked 12th in the 16-team league, just three places above the relegation zone.
Will Drogba’s tenure be an Anelka redux? Drogba and Anelka were strike partners at Chelsea, but they are players with far different attributes. Anelka, 33, is a mercurial talent known for clashes with management. As a French international, he lashed out at then coach Raymond Domenech during France’s disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and was sent home early. Drogba played in the same tournament despite having recently fractured his right arm and scored a memorable goal against Brazil. Anelka scored one goal in his last 15 appearances for Chelsea in 2011 before his transfer to Shanghai. Drogba’s last goal for his former club was an 88th-minute equalizer in this year’s Champions League final against Bayern Munich to take the game to extra time. The game ended in a shootout, and Drogba scored the winning penalty for Chelsea. He was named man of the match.
So it’s understandable that Shenhua fans are willing once again to put their faith on a high-priced import. Drogba was brought to the club by owner Zhu Jun, an Internet multimillionaire and soccer fanatic who has also hired former Argentina national-side coach Sergio Batista. Zhu is China’s answer to Roman Abramovich, the Russian tycoon who bought Chelsea in 2003. Through massive investment in players like Drogba, Abramovich’s team won English Premier League titles, the FA Cup and, for the first time, the Champions League.
Zhu, who once famously forced Shenhua’s manager to allow him to take to the pitch for a friendly against Liverpool in 2007, told the Financial Times that he hopes football can help make China a stronger nation. The sport is widely followed in China, particularly during the World Cup. But its men’s team is currently listed 68th, below countries like Montenegro and Haiti, and a chart of its international ranking shows a general decline since the mid-1990s. China’s domestic leagues have been riddled with corruption, and children are more likely to play basketball, table tennis or badminton. The arrival of superstars like Drogba will undoubtedly draw fans to games, but it’s unclear whether that will help the growth of China’s own talent pool. Brazilian football superstar Pelé played for the New York Cosmos for three seasons at the end of his career in the mid-1970s, widely boosting the sport’s popularity in the U.S., but it wasn’t until 1990 that the U.S. men’s team would return to the World Cup after a 40-year absence (it hasn’t missed one since). Turning around China’s national side could take decades still. And for now, Drogba’s new bosses are more worried about turning around their team before the end of the season in November.