Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 00:00
Big names lift Chinese premier league
International striker Nicolas Anelka must have been shocked, or amused, depending on his mood, when one of his early matches on the mainland after joining Shanghai’s Shenhua for a reputed 100 million yuan a year, turned into a free-for-all brawl.
But the sometimes bloody fields of Chinese premier league football, tainted for years by corruption and hooliganism, has not deterred Anelka and other big-name players in Europe and South America from coming. Lured by reportedly fabulous offers, several other world-class players, all of them are familiar to fans on the mainland and in Hong Kong, are said to have either signed contracts or shown an interest to play at various clubs in the Chinese premier league.
Anelka’s move from Chelsea to Shenhua has reportedly made the 32-year-old striker the highest paid player in China and third best-paid footballer in the world after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Andrés Messi. Unsurprisingly, others are following his footstep eastward.
Guangzhou Evergrande, which won the league championship in 2011, offered an annual pay of about 80 million yuan to bring Argentinian Dario Conca from Fluminense in Brazil to the team. This year, Guizhou Renhe is said to have contacted flamboyant Real Madrid manager Joes Mourinho, offering him a staggering 3 million yuan-a-week salary to coach in Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces on the mainland.
Guizhou Renhe, based in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, was acquired by Maotai, one of China’s largest white-wine distillers, last year. The deep pocket of Maotai has fired the ambition of the club which set its goal on winning the premier league champion within the next couple of years. Netting Mourinho, one of the most sought-after club managers in the world, would be nothing short of a coup for Maotai, which is one of the mainland’s biggest advertising spenders.
Guangzhou Evergrande, the 2010 and 2011 premier league champion, is owned by real-estate developer Apollo, which is based in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province. Apollo reportedly paid 100 million yuan for the club in 2010 and has made known its intention to forge the team into one of Asia’s best.
Meanwhile, Shanghai Shenhua is said to have already made an overture to other high-profile players, including Anelka’s Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba.
Of course, one or two big stars aren’t going to give any particular Chinese football team the firepower to compete internationally. But their presence seems to have done wonders in helping to revive the interest of millions of domestic football fans, dispirited by exposed scandals leading to the arrest and conviction of numerous officials, referees and players.
It may be too early to tell whether these foreign players can save the sport from sinking further into ignominy in China in the longer term. But they are seen by the clubs which have agreed to pay them big money as the calling cards for opening doors to potential advertisers and sponsors which include some of the largest vendors of sportswear, liquor and automobiles.
Leading the pack in the hunt for foreign stars is Zhu Jun, the always flashy and sometimes controversial owner of Shanghai-based Shenhua, a team that has time and again dismayed its sponsors and broken the hearts of its many die-hard fans by its fickle match performance.
But when Anelka made its debut on February 22 in the game against arch rival Hunan Xiangtao, the stadium, which can seat more than 35,000 spectators, was packed with fans from around the region. “I’m not a fan of Shenhua,” said Chen Si, a 26-year-old engineer at TUV Rheinland in Shanghai . “I went to see Anelka because all the guys in our company had been talking about him all the time,” he said. Shenhua won the match 3 to 1.
Although Shenhua lost in another match to Tianjin Teda in a high-profile match on April 13, Chinese fans gave Anelka a standing ovation. Xu Feng, the president of the Shanghai Shenhua Blue Devil Fan Club, said: “Anelka brought high profile to the Chinese league. With his arrival, I know Shenhua can do better this season, and we have the ambition to win the league. With more high-profile foreign players, Chinese football will make a change.”
Anelka and other international players may not be able to “save Chinese football” as predicted by many domestic media hacks, but they are bringing new hope to Zhu and other club owners.
Zhu is well-known for never giving interviews to the press, choosing rather to dispense his wisdom, or vent his frustration, on his microblog — the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. In one of his latest entries, he surprised friends and enemies by declaring that he has, somehow, lost interest in Chinese football and is willing to sell his stake in Shenhua to anyone offering 4 million yuan. But nobody seems to have taken it up seriously.
“He (Zhu) is just bluffing,” said Shen Lei , deputy director of Sports Department at Shanghai’s Wen Wei Po. “He is having so much fun, he’s not going to sell Shenhua, not now,” Shen said.
Before Zhu, a dot-com entrepreneur who is the chief executive officer of The 9 Computer Technology Consulting, bought a controlling interest in Shenhua in 2007, the team was owned by the Shanghai municipal government. At that time, Zhu, a self professed football fanatic, had already bought into a competing team Shanghai United FC, which has since merged with Shenhua.
Zhu’s company, The 9 Computer, is an online game operator, which has made enough profit to rank the 37-year-old Zhu the 66th richest man in China on Forbes’ list. Hardly anyone who knows him believes he is in football just for the passion.
Professor Hong Bing of the Department of Journalism at Fudan University said football is a complex commercial operation in China. “Obviously, Zhu has interest in football, but after all he is a businessman and the big-money hiring of Anelka and other international stars must make business sense to him,” Hong said.
Sources close to the sport said Anelka actually has signed two contracts — one with the Shenhua football team as a striker, and the other an agreement to endorse Firefall, a game developed by Zhu’s company. In fact, the bulk of Anelka’s reputed remuneration is tied to Firefall, the sources said.
A statement on Firefall’s website said: “Under the agreement, Anelka will participate in various promotion and endorsement initiatives for promoting Firefall. Anelka has also granted The 9 some certain other rights relating to the promotion activities, including the use of Anelka’s name, voice and likeness. The world wide endorsement agreement is for a term of one year.”
Anelka’s arrangement with Firefall is not exclusive. Luxury car maker, Jaguar Land Rover, has already contracted the star striker as one of its spokespersons in the Chinese market. According to the marketing manager of Shanghai Tianhua Juguar 4s center, the car company has offered Anelka a new Land Rover worth of $130,000 as his personal transport to “increase the awareness and promote the brand”.
What’s more, Shenhua has raised the price it demanded from its ticketing agent to 23 million yuan in the 2012 season, up 20 times from a year before.
Jorg Albertz, the former midfielder of Shenhua, told BBC that Anelka “will love Shanghai but not the football”. Albertz was 32 when he moved to Shanghai. “It was true so I kept my mouth shut and made the decision to leave the country. At the end of the day, if you are giving 100 percent to your club and you know maybe there are some players who are not performing that well.’’ “You want to have success. That’s why you play football and that wasn’t the case for me any longer,’’ BBC reported.
Mubarak Abulimit contributed to the story.
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