Drogba joins China's foreign legion

Didier Drogba vies for the ball during the Africa Zone qualifying match for the World Cup 2014,  Marrakesh, June 9, 2012.

Story highlights

  • Former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba will join Shanghai Shenhua next season
  • Chinese tycoons are spending big on foreign coaches and players
  • Football is considered the number one spectator sport in China
  • However support is waning due to corruption scandals, poor performance

The foreign invasion of China's professional football league reached fever pitch this week with the announcement that former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba will play with the Shanghai Shenhua team next season.

"Drogba will be the highest profile player to join the China Super League," said Titan sports commentator Yan Qiang. "He is going to get about 12 million euro (US$15 million) per season, the highest salary ever offered by China sport."

This continues the spending spree on foreign coaches and players by Chinese tycoons who have been acquiring sports teams for commercial and branding purposes.

Last year reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande imported a South American superstar who led the team to the championship. In May, the team pulled off another coup by securing the services of World Cup-winning Italian Coach Marcello Lippi.

Bankrolled by Zhu Jun, a charismatic tycoon who co-owns Nine City, an online games company, Shenhua has been languishing near the bottom of the China Super League, with only three wins in 13 games.

Chinese soccer: Vanity project or emerging superpower?

Drogba, 34, will join his former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka in the attacking line of the Shanghai team.

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Drogba says he decided to move to Shanghai to experience a new culture, promote Chinese football around the world, and further improve China-Africa relations.

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"When Chelsea went to China last year, we had a great time and met some amazing fans," he wrote on his personal website.

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Football is considered the No. 1 spectator sport in China. Large crowds go to games and even larger audiences watch televised games featuring teams in professional leagues at home and in Italy, Germany and Britain.

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But interest in soccer has waned in recent years.

This is partly due to the scandals that have plagued the "beautiful game."

Last week, two former top officials of China's football association and four ex-members of the national team were convicted of corruption and match-fixing. They were sentenced to long prison terms.

Poor performances by China's national teams haven't helped the cause either. China has repeatedly failed to qualify for the World Cup, prompting popular frustration and anger.

In 2010, after the game that doomed China's chances of qualifying for the World Cup, a local newspaper ran a large, bold black headline, "The National Soccer Team Lost Again. We Have Nothing to Say."

That year, China was ranked 84th in the world, just ahead of Mozambique. There has been little progress since then.

In November last year, Team China was again eliminated from their 2014 World Cup qualifying group.

Qualification for the World Cup remains an elusive goal, and the fans are not happy.

I have seen Chinese soccer fans get angry when their team loses.

In May 1985, minutes after an underdog Hong Kong team knocked China out of contention for the 1986 World Cup, hundreds of angry fans stormed onto the field and besieged the winning team -- and the home team.

Outside the Beijing stadium, mobs went on a rampage, smashing vehicles and attacking journalists and diplomats. It was the worst sports riot in decades.

Some China-watchers suggested it was a cathartic release of pent-up emotions over social and political controls and other complaints, coupled with an ugly display of jingoism.

Others viewed it as evidence of simple fans' disappointment at their national team.

With no home team to root for, Chinese fans have turned to other teams overseas—or to local teams featuring international idols.

"I bought Drogba to make supporters happy," Shenhua owner Zhu Jun wrote in his microblog. "I believe his professionalism is not just on the field -- his other strengths will also have a great impact on other players. His values are many, he has an international vision as well as international recognition."

Fans hailed the move.

"It is a good thing for Chinese football and fans," wrote microblogger Jiaojiandefengzi. "Big-shot players will definitely improve attendance in stadiums, boost ratings and bring considerable commercial benefits."  

It is not a novel idea. In 1975, Brazilian super-hero Pele signed with the New York Cosmos and for years he gave the nascent professional soccer scene in the U.S. massive publicity and a significant boost in popularity.

In 2007, David Beckham left Real Madrid to join Major League Soccer team LA Galaxy. Beckham, then 31, signed a multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal that included sponsorship and merchandising contracts.

"They worked in the sense that everyone made a lot of money, and they helped raise the profile of soccer in America and the U.S. league abroad," said Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl.

"There's no magic bullet, however. The U.S. league is still growing, but slowly," he added.

But sports analysts wonder if importing big-name stars necessarily boost the teams commercially or competitively.

Yan Qiang says it made sense for Guangzhou's Evergrande team. "They were doing the Manchester City model," he explained. "They made huge investment into the first team to gain instant result on the pitch and thus promote Evergrande's brand in China and Asia."

But Yan finds Shanghai's strategy off-target.

"Shanghai is a weak team, even though the club has some pedigree. Signing Drogba and Anelka would not make Shanghai a top team because it takes more than two world-class strikers to make a powerful team."

To give China's soccer a genuine boost, Yan said, "the key is grassroots participation and youth development."

Jiang Yi, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated China, said importing big names "is only good for Chinese sports if more big businesses and rich entrepreneurs wanted to get involved with sports in China. The reality is, however, that many of them don't want to."

Commercial goals aside, David Pan, formerly a professional basketball player in China and now a business professor at Prince Sultan University in Saudi Arabia, believes getting Drogba is largely a vanity project.  "I think it is a stunt for Shanghai to reposition its city's image in China and the world in the post-Yao Ming era."

Pan likens it to the concept of bringing Formula 1 racing to Shanghai, which over the years has failed to gain popular and commercial appeal. "I voiced my concern but they went ahead anyway," he said. "Looking back, it's clear that the F1 race track was only for face-lifting of Shanghai." 

Still, Pan adds, "with sophisticated planning and marketing schemes, perhaps it could serve as a steroid to jump-start the fan's interest in football.

"The problem is, the fans lack a connection with soccer because of its credibility issue. The soccer league is a mirror of the worst in China, as evidenced in the news reports on corruption."

Perhaps microblogger Huxiaopanjin puts China's soccer conundrum most poignantly: "I've often seen kids playing on cement ground," he wrote. "Some of them may have superstar quality but they are unfortunately born in China.

"China has plenty of money but nobody would even build one small field for the kids to play on. Stars can temporarily save the market but contribute little to the future of Chinese football."