Andrew Crawford asseses Chinese football's nouveau riche.
Up until very recently, Shanghai Shenhua and money have enjoyed a very awkward relationship, largely because the club never really had lots of it. It doesn’t help that the Shanghainese are also a painfully fickle bunch. Even when the club was regularly finishing in the top three of the Chinese Super League, a city of around eighteen million people still struggled to fill even half of the cavernous Hongkou stadium, meaning gate receipts could never be relied on to generate revenue. In 2011, the annual attendance at Shenhua home games was 9,288, less than a third of the ground’s total capacity.
Last season, despite playing in the Asian Champions League, the club lacked either the funds or the ambition to retain their on-loan Columbian talisman, Duvier Riascos, who had been the league’s top scorer in 2010. With the striker returning to his parent club, America De Cali, a dysfunctional Shenhua plummeted into the bottom half of the table and despite last minute wins against fierce rivals Hangzhou Greentown and Beijing Guoan, still finished in a lowly 11th place, their worst finish to a season in almost a decade.
A slump prompted by the loss of a key player had uncomfortable echoes of the fire sale of Shenhua players in 2009 and for a period of time, it looked like things were going to get worse for the club, who haven’t won a title since 2003.
That all changed last December when Shenhua made global headlines with the signing of Nicolas Anelka. In the build-up to the announcement, people on the ground in Shanghai dismissed it as bluster to give the fans something to hope for. At the time, it seemed impossible that the club would be able to find the funds to secure a striker who still could play in a big European League.
From out of nowhere, substantial amounts of money were being made available to the club from a nameless company with links to the government. Shenhua had evidently caught the eyes of some very wealthy people looking to raise the profile of the team, the city, and the country’s football league itself.
Having previously been unable to retain their loan players, now Shenhua has the fiscal credibility to be linked with almost anyone. In the last few weeks Miguel (the frisky Valencia right back), Michael Ballack, Guti, Andres D’Alessandro, Alvaro Recoba and of course, Didier Drogba, have all been linked with the club although there remains little concrete evidence to prove that any of them are actually on their way.
A lot of the chaos is due to the actions of Shenhua’s chairman, Zhu Jun, who once fabricated a bid for Liverpool FC in 2009. He continues to lead a merry dance amongst the sports columns of any reporters who are foolish enough to listen to him. On Weibo, the Chinese hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, he continues to drop ambiguous, enticing titbits to keep stories alive but also maintain his own exposure in the global press.
A big problem for anyone trying to get to the bottom of all the transfer gossip is that the Shenhua chairman doesn’t appear to be in charge of the purse strings right now and so has chosen to play the role of court jester for the global sports press whilst its nameless financiers keep a low profile.
Moreover, there is actually little way of dismissing any rumour as completely unlikely. The arrival of Anelka itself came completely out of the blue and now a sense of ’anything is possible’ continues to hover around the club. Zhu is a man with no football sense at all and it could just be that the club’s newfound sugar daddies lack the sense to look beyond chasing the biggest name on the market and invest in a more low-key but badly-needed defender.
Chances are though you won’t be seeing too many big signings announced in Shanghai over the next few days. Firstly, Shenhua, like all the other clubs in the Chinese Super League, are only allowed to field three overseas players and one non-Chinese ‘Asian’ player in their starting line-up. The club recently signed their Asian player for this season, the former Beijing forward, Joel Griffiths (the Australian fits this category because his country is a member of the Asian Football Conference) and along with Anelka, this means Shenhua only have two remaining starting slots for foreigners. To fill their remaining two places before the transfer market has had time to settle and more options present themselves make little business sense.
Secondly, and just as crucially, there are still a couple of months before the season begins. Shenhua and a man like Zhu, if he has any sort of control over proceedings, would be reluctant to fall out of the headlines when the team is probably amongst the most talked about football teams in the world right now. By signing someone, the club would lose their main gimmick right now- that they could literally sign anyone.
Within Shanghai itself, the club is probably wary of staying in the thoughts of the locals that will be expected to buy the tickets and fill up the Hongkou stadium. Whilst it’s preseason time for the CSL, China’s basketball league is going into the last few games of the regular season and the city’s team, the Sharks, led by hometown hero, Liu Wei, can still make the playoffs. Shenhua will not want to be eclipsed by their basketball brethren and the ongoing transfer speculation helps to keep the football team in the limelight despite the lack of anything solid to report about.
All of this means that Shenhua rumour mill will probably continue to turn for a long time to come. The third overseas signing will help narrow down the identity and position of the fourth and final foreigner to arrive in Shanghai this season but until that happens, read everything you see with a pinch of salt and spare a thought for all the Shenhua fans caught up in footballing equivalent of Waiting for Godot.