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Drogba arrives in Shanghai, insists move is not about money

By Steven Jiang, CNN
updated 1:26 AM EDT, Sun July 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba is reported to be earning $300,000 a week in China
  • Drogba says he has not made the move to retire, and wants to be a champion
  • Critics describe the luring of top players to China as vanity projects
  • "The most important thing is that I come here to help Chinese football," Drogba said

Shanghai (CNN) -- Hours after being mobbed by hundreds of cheering fans at the airport upon his arrival, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba made his official debut with new team Shanghai Shenhua Saturday afternoon and insisted his move was motivated by challenges of helping Chinese football.

"I didn't come here with the idea of making a lot of money," said the 34-year-old Ivory Coast football superstar at a press conference, despite local news reports naming him the highest paid player in China who earns more than $300,000 a week.

"I came here because of the completely different challenges from what I've seen in Europe before," he said.

"I am here to win matches and be the champion -- I am not here to retire," he added.

Shortly after scoring the penalty that crowned Chelsea champions of Europe, Drogba signed an undisclosed two-and-a-half-year contract with Shenhua last month. He joins former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka -- who made the switch in January with a similar reported annual salary of $15 million -- at a once-proud football club now struggling to keep its spot in the Chinese Super League.

"We have a difficult job to do, but we are going to work hard and try to make our fans happy," said Drogba, before reminding the audience of Chelsea's gradual ascent. "Maybe it's going to take time but, believe me, we are going to do everything to achieve it."

His arrival highlights the spending spree by Chinese football clubs on foreign talent. Supporters argue that Chinese players need to learn from the best and international stars give the sport's weak following in China a much-needed boost.

"The most important thing is that I come here to help Chinese football," Drogba said. "I think I have a little bit of experience -- I come here to share that experience and some knowledge."

Critics, however, describe the luring of top players to China as vanity projects by club owners more interested in benefiting their business empires than developing football at the grassroots level in the world's most populous nation.

Shenhua's owner, Zhu Jun, is an online gaming tycoon whose deep pockets brought Drogba and Anelka to Shanghai. But his company's latest product -- "Planetside 2" -- was prominently featured on Drogba's uniform in a huge portrait that adorned the backdrop of the press conference, as fiery scenes from the game splashed on big screens.

"They play for Shanghai Shenhua, but they also serve as marketing vehicles for the parent company," said Jiang Yi, managing editor of the Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated. "Football-wise, the money is obviously over the top -- but if you look at the bigger picture, the money is well spent."

On the outskirts of Beijing, coach He Hongguang feels even more concerned about the "money as solution" approach to improve Chinese football. Teaching a children's football summer camp one recent morning, the former professional player said sports officials and club owners are focusing on the wrong thing.

"I think Chinese football is a bit too eager to achieve quick success and get instant benefits," he said. "Football is not so popular in China like in neighboring South Korea and Japan, because they put great emphasis on training and cultivating young players."

A tarnished reputation doesn't help, either, as Chinese football has been dogged by years of corruption and mismanagement.

Since a nationwide crackdown began three years ago, dozens of senior football figures have been convicted of taking bribes and fixing matches, including two former national league chiefs who were both recently sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

"There were some problems," said Drogba. "The fact that they put it in the frontline -- it's because they want to stop it -- so it's good for football."

And his mere presence in Shanghai appears to have already brought good fortune to Shenhua. With Drogba watching from the sidelines, the team beat archrival Beijing Guo'an 3-1 in a home game on a rainy Saturday night -- exactly what the nicknamed "Magical Beast" promised fans earlier.

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