Dubai: When Didier Drogba followed his former Chelsea teammate and fellow striker Nicolas Anelka to Shanghai Shenhua last year, it appeared that Chinese football had finally arrived.
But within six months the dream was over: Anelka and Drogba both walked away from lucrative two-year US$300,000-a-week contracts, citing unpaid wages after a dispute between the club’s chairman Zhu Jun and its shareholders.
With their departure, China’s hope of overcoming decades of corruption and match-fixing allegations to become a respected footballing nation was dealt a killer blow.
Shenhua’s goalkeeping coach, Ian Walker, 41, formerly of England and Tottenham Hotspur, witnessed the entire debacle after joining his old Bolton Wanderers teammate Anelka in April 2012. However, he insists a serious lesson was learnt from the fallout.
Speaking to Gulf News, Walker said: “Bringing big names brought lots of attention. Crowds of 10,000 went up to 25,000. It was good for the league to get that attention. But ultimately you want to start from the grassroots to make things better.”
Although high-profile coaches such as former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcelo Lippi have since joined Guangzhou R&F and Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese clubs are now looking towards sustainability, according to Walker, signing younger, cheaper but more effective foreigners, while using funds to bolster their local youth set-ups.
It’s clear that China needs to change its footballing philosophy, too, because as things stand, the World No. 99-ranked country has still only appeared in one World Cup in 2002, when South Korea and Japan’s entrance as hosts made it easier for them to qualify. They have twice finished runners-up (1984 and 2004) from ten Asian Cup appearances and have still only had one win in the Asian Champions League with FC Liaoning in 1990.
When former Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid and France striker Anelka, 34, joined Shenhua to much fanfare in January 2012, it appeared China’s footballing woes were over. He was even named player-coach after his compatriot Jean Tigana’s sacking in April. However, things turned sour the following month when he was demoted back down to playing staff after the appointment of former Argentina coach Sergio Batista.
After scoring just three goals in 22 appearances, and following a heated exchange with a fan after failing to bow to the crowd, Anelka — now with English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion — fled for Italian giants Juventus in January 2013 in a five-month deal worth $800,000.
Ivorian forward Drogba, 35, formerly of Marseille and Chelsea, also followed Anelka out of the door six months after he had first joined the club in June 2012, moving to Turkish side Galatasaray on an 18-month contract worth US$5.3 million a season. Drogba had scored eight goals in 11 appearances in an otherwise forgettable season, where Shenhua could only muster a ninth-place finish out of 16 teams.
The only ageing luxuries nowadays are Nigerian former Portsmouth and Everton striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni, 30, at Guangzhou R&F and Malian former West Ham and Tottenham forward Frederic Kanoute, 36, at Beijing Guoan.
Walker added: “It would have been great for players if they [Drogba and Anelka] had stayed as they would have had someone to look up to and show them how to train. But things happen, they decided to leave and we had to get on without them.
“It was great for the fans but it was only short term, so I think they [the clubs] have realised that now, and are really starting to develop grassroots academies for the long term.
“You can’t say it’s happening yet, clubs are more talking about it. Evergrande have a big academy and others are looking towards that, bringing people over from Europe to go around the country and start at grassroots getting kids involved. It will take 10 to 20 years to be strong. If it got government backing, it would happen much quicker.”
Walker, who has been influential in the development of China’s first choice keeper Wang Delai, 24, added: “I think anyone who comes over here and lasts 18 months is doing probably doing a good job. They tend to chop and change coaches here and coaches tend to bring in their own staff and everybody else gets kicked out.
“Delai has been player of the year the last two seasons and if it wasn’t for him the club would probably have got relegated last year and be in a lot more trouble this season as well. He got into the Chinese national team and has been quite successful, but he’s put in the hard work and he deserves it. I’ve just tried to point him in the right direction.”
Walker’s plan was to set up his own goalkeeping academy in China, but he has suffered setbacks.
“Without the backing of the Chinese Football Association or someone big it is very difficult to set up. I would like to go somewhere where I can make a difference, where I can try and bring through a lot of keepers to a good standard and help the national team.
“Who knows where that would be? We’ll wait and see, but I don’t think anything like that will happen here [in China]. I’m not sure they are ready for a specialised goalkeeping centre as grassroots development is not great.”
Of Shenhua’s chairman Zhu Jun, 46 — an online gaming tycoon who has been accused of spending beyond his means in order to raise the profile of his company, interfering in squad selection and even pick himself in the starting line-up alongside Anelka — Walker added: “Without him there wouldn’t be a club. He gets a little bit of grief from fans but you can’t win everyone over. With what he’s spent and his continued backing, things should get better and better.
“Clubs here are still growing and crowds are getting bigger. But it isn’t yet at the stage where clubs are sustainable without their owners.”
THE LOWDOWN ON THE CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE
* The Chinese Super League was created by the rebranding of the former Chinese Football Association Jia-A League in 2004.
* Originally contested by 12 teams in its first year, the league has grown to include 16 teams in the current season.
* The current Super League champions are Guangzhou Evergrande.
* The title has been won by six teams: Shenzhen Jianlibao, Dalian Shide, Shandong Luneng, Changchun Yatai, Beijing Guoan, and Guangzhou Evergrande.