The China Africa Co-operation Football Club Extravaganza
The Chinese Super League is on a spending spree. When all the bank accounts are empty, where will the world’s biggest country stand as a soccer power? And will there be an African footballer playing anywhere else in the world? By RICHARD POPLAK.
The numbers are not quite outlandish, but they do make one stagger and wish that one had practised just a little harder as a boy. A new market has emerged for soccer players past their prime. No longer is it necessary to sign with North America’s Major League Soccer if one is looking for a holiday from Europe, a sizeable pay cheque, zero pressure and relative anonymity.
The Chinese Super League mid-season transfer window has just closed, and teams have thrown money around like Saudi teenagers on a Macau gambling weekend. The names, and in particular the African names, are hardly unknown. How’s Didier Drogba, for a start? The Cote d’Ivoire giant, who scored that superb late goal for Chelsea, winning them the Uefa Champion’s League title, has signed with Shanghai Shenhua. He will be paid over $15-million a year, alongside old teammate Nicolas Anelka, who receives an equivalent salary.
Both are enormous players, but signings of that nature always cause hand-wringing for European clubs—yes, they contribute off the bench, but are they worth the considerable ducats? With Drogba safely ensconced in a Shanghai penthouse, the vexation is stalled until he inevitably decides to break his contract. He might have asked Anelka how things in Shanghai have been going, and would he have done so, he might have found Anelka somewhat less than positive. The team sits perilously near the relegation zone, and Drogba is being paid to help bail them out. Shenhua’s management have so far given Anelka more than $7,5-million per goal, which seems like a poor ROI to me, but what the heck do I know?
“I watched a lot of games of Anelka when he first started and he didn't get it his own way... It's not easy to move to a domestic league where some of the players around them aren't up to their level,” former CSL coach Lorin McKinna recently told Goal.com.
“Long term I don't know if (these signings are) going to have a lasting effect, because these players might be there for a year or two and find it difficult living there. It's not living in London, or France, or Spain - it's not easy to settle in there.”
Transfers to unfamiliar nations have always been a bugbear of club football, and miserable millionaires tend to bail when the going gets tough-ish. Which makes the signing of Nigerian Yakuba Aiyegbeni by Guangzhou Fuli seem like, um, folly. Yakuba scored 17 goals in the Premier League last season, and he is by no means an ageing player—under 30, he’s four years away from official greybeard status.
The same goes for Zambian Isaac Chansa, who contributed to Zambia’s Africa Cup of Nations surprise win, and is only 28. He was nabbed from Orlando Pirates and now plays for the gorgeously named Henan Construction. He’ll be eating chow mein with compatriot Christopher Katongo, while fellow Zambian James Chamanga strikes at Dalian Shide, and has done so for several years.
Frederic Kanoute, the superb Malian one-time African Footballer of the Year and two-time Uefa Cup winner, more than fits the established mould. At 34, he is indubitably past his prime, but now joins what by rights should be the biggest football club in the world (but decidedly isn’t)—Beijing Guoan. Kanoute has had a fine career in Europe, and arrives in the Middle Kingdom after six fine seasons in Sevilla—he’s earned a rest and a strings-free payday.
The CSL is trying desperately to moult its image as a match-fixing, rotten backwater football league (two former heads of the Chinese Football Association are currently serving lengthy jail terms), and it needs the names to do so.
“They are quite a proud nation and they are embarrassed with what happened with the match-fixing, so they are very reactive with what they do. These clubs can afford it, so they went big,” McKinna told Goal.com. “They're trying to promote the game as the number one game in China and when you see them bringing these huge names over, it's proven a point.”
It also comes at an interesting time in China’s geopolitical trajectory. The 2012 edition of the Forum for China Africa Co-operation currently unfolds in Beijing, a city that isn’t always partial to black faces. China’s lengthy engagement with Africa doesn’t mean that racism on the mainland hasn’t been rampant. The same thing could, of course, be said for Europe. Indeed, a case could be made for black football players having helped nudge that continent forward a tad when it comes to social issues (bananas and monkey chants aside).
The breaking down of racial barriers takes a long time—South Africans tend to know this better than most—but what’s happening in the CSL is interesting on many levels. Football is a global game, and it plays by globalisation’s rules more than most industries. Football means joining the family of nations, and paying crap loads of money to belong to the club. Good luck at maintaining any pretence of socialism while paying Didier Drogba a sweet 15 million a year.
And the money keeps coming. Frank Lampard has reportedly been offered over $300,000 a week to play at an unnamed CSL club. Lucas Barrios, the Paraguay star, is already there. Who knows, in 20 years the CSL may be international football’s lodestar, and the abovementioned men the league’s shining pioneers.
Regardless, China stands as a good place for an ageing star to make good on his brand. Three hundred cold a week? Surely Lampard deserves nothing less. But then what the hell do I know? DM
Photo: Shanghai Shenhua's Didier Drogba (R) of Ivory Coast and his team mate Nicolas Anelka of France shake hands during a training session in Shanghai July 16, 2012. Drogba has signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with the big-spending Chinese Super League club for a reported salary of $300,000 a week, ending weeks of speculation on his future after he announced his decision to leave Champions League winners Chelsea. REUTERS/Aly Song