Can A French Sports Star Change China’s Soccer Fortunes?

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Charles Platiau / Reuters

France's Nicolas Anelka kicks the ball between Wang Giang (L) and Du Wei (R) of China during their friendly soccer match at Michel Volnay stadium on the French overseas territory of La Reunion, June 4, 2010. Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua said on December 11, 2011, they had agreed contract terms with Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka.

Chinese online-gaming mogul Zhu Jun is used to winning big. After all, he made his fortune in part by being the first to nab China distribution rights for the World of Warcraft franchise. But the soccer team that he bought with his millions, Shanghai Shenhua, has broken his lucky streak. Last season the Blue Devils finished in 11th place (out of 16 teams) in the Chinese Super League. What’s more, he’s had a patchy record as owner. He once made the coach pick him for a friendly against Liverpool in Amsterdam (he only lasted five minutes). Zhu’s merging of the club with rivals Shanghai United understandably upset supporters and he’s even threatened to relocate the team to Wuhu, in Anhui.

Now Zhu’s luck may be about to change. On Dec. 12, Shenhua announced that it had padded its roster with none other than Nicolas Anelka, the gifted (if temperamental) French striker. The two-year deal is worth around $300,000 a week, according to French sports media. Anelka, 32, is scheduled to arrive in Shanghai next month after having his transfer request accepted by his English Premier League club Chelsea last week.

Anelka, who helped Real Madrid win the Champions League in 2000, is a journeyman whose peregrinations have taken him from Paris St. German to Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in the EPL, before he moved to Fenerbahçe in Turkey. He then returned to English football with Bolton and Chelsea. In 2010 he emerged as the petulant poster boy of a French national team that failed to emerge from the group stages of the World Cup after having made the finals of the tournament four years before. He was sent home from South Africa after allegedly unleashing a half-time temper tantrum at French national manager Raymond Domenech and was banned from France’s national team for 18 games (without Anelka, France’s fortunes have since been on the rise).

Anelka is by far the biggest catch to date for China’s soccer league, which is in the midst of a foreign buying spree that in July netted 2009 and 2010 Brazilian league player of the year, the Argentine Darío Conca. His reported $10 million transfer was to Guangzhou Evergrande based in China’s south and the move paid off as attendances have shot up. (Each team in the Chinese Super League is limited to four foreign players on the field, one of whom must be Asian.) If Zhu has his way, Shenhua could soon boast more top-flight—and pricey—talent. Club officials have said that they are nearing a deal for French coach Jean Tigana (who has helmed Lyon, Fulham and Monaco, among other clubs) to skipper the team. Now rumors are mounting that Shenhua may also try to lure Anelka’s Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba. The Blue Devils could have domestic competition for the Ivorian veteran as Dalian Aerbin, a recently promoted club based in the coastal Chinese city, is reportedly dangling a fat paycheck in front of Drogba. But Anelka and the other foreign imports could have to get used to playing to smaller crowds than they’ve been used to, which could put Drogba off, as he thrives from the energy he gets from the fans in the stands.

Shanghai Shenhua may be upgrading madly, but Chinese football itself is in a sorry state. The domestic league has been cursed by match-fixing scandals and arrests of top soccer officials. Gambling is also endemic. Although China has triumphed internationally in sports like ping-pong and weightlifting, its youth soccer pipeline is disappointing, hamstrung by unimaginative play, outmoded training and, most of all, a state-centered tendency to recruit potential athletes instead of allowing passion to develop naturally on the pitch. Last month the national men’s football team failed in its bid to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; China’s men didn’t make the cut for next year’s Olympic games, either. Both will be seen as bitter blows for a country trying to make inroads into the world’s most popular sport.

There’s also the issue of how foreign players adapt to life in China, both on the pitch and off. In 2003, I followed England’s Paul Gascoigne — who had it not been for injuries might have been one of the greatest midfielders of his generation — when he washed up in China playing for the Gansu Agricultural Land Reclamation Flying Horses, a second-division team based in one of China’s most polluted cities. (The team was even worse than its name makes it sound—and it no longer exists.) Gazza lasted only a couple months and scored just a couple of goals for the Flying Horses. His fade on the field seemed matched only by his lassitude at team breakfasts where he was confounded by bowls of noodles, rice gruel and pickled vegetables.

Shanghai is certainly more cosmopolitan than the Flying Horses’ home turf. But American basketball players who have transplanted to China’s biggest city have also complained about the gritty conditions under which Chinese athletes toil there, even at top-flight clubs. Nevertheless, if Anelka’s journeyman record is any indication, he may not even stay in Shanghai for that long, though his image already adorns the home page of the team’s website.