Anelka brings high profile to Chinese league

The eyes of soccer fans across Asia will be on China this

weekend as Shanghai Shenhua and star striker Nicolas Anelka kick

off the most eagerly awaited Chinese Super League season ever.

The French star arrived in the city of 20 million in January

after a high-profile move from English Premier League powerhouse

Chelsea – one that reportedly made him the highest-paid player in

the world – to signal that Chinese soccer has arrived on the

international stage.

Anelka already has a legion of fans in Shanghai, and is looking

forward to the challenge of being the biggest soccer star in the

world’s most populous nation.

”There is always pressure in football,” said Anelka, who has

also played for Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool. ”Wherever I’ve

played there have always been high-pressure games. Of course,

there’s a lot of attention on me right now, but I’m just here to do

my best for Shanghai Shenhua, to score goals and play well for the

team and the fans.”

Anelka has been joined at the club by fellow Frenchman Jean

Tigana, the former coach of Monaco and English Premier League club


Shanghai may be the story of the CSL, but it is by no means a

foregone conclusion that Shenhua will lift the title for the first

time since 2003 or even be in contention. The team finished a lowly

11th last season and Lee Jang-soo, coach of champion Guangzhou

Evergrande, doubts whether one signing will make a huge difference

to his rivals.

”The level of Anelka is very high and Shenhua will be hard to

deal with this season,” Lee said. ”But I have to say that soccer

is a team event and relying on one single player will not help a

team win games.”

Lee led Guangzhou to the title by 15 points in its first season

after earning soccer to the top flight. The southern club started

the spending spree in Chinese football in 2010 by signing a number

of well-known Chinese international stars and adding highly paid

foreign players.

The most famous is of those is Dario Conca. The Argentine

midfielder arrived in Guangzhou last July after a deal worth more

than $10 million. Along with Brazilian strikers Cleo and Muriqui,

he helped take Guangzhou to the next level.

That was evident Wednesday when, in the team’s first appearance

in the Asian Champions League, Guangzhou traveled to the home of

2006 Asian champion and 2011 finalist Jeonbuk Motors and stunned

the Korean team with a 5-1 victory.

”We have strengthened since last season and we want to defend

our title,” Lee said. ”We have spent more than $50 million

because we wanted to build a team quickly. We have eight Chinese

international players in our roster and we have more that are

capable of playing for the national team. We know though that this

year will be more difficult as other teams have invested in new


Dalian Aerbin is another new team in the mix. The club has

quickly risen from China’s third tier and is as ambitious as

Shanghai. Both clubs have been recently linked with moves for

Didier Drogba, another Chelsea striker.

In soccer terms, Dalian Shide has been the most successful club

in Chinese history. But the traditional powerhouse and others such

as Shandong Luneng and even 2011 runner-up Beijing Guoan are in

danger of being left behind. Beijing finished second last season

but has lost star Australian Joel Griffiths to Shanghai.

Not all view the money being spent as entirely positive.

Ex-Dutch international Arie Haan has experience coaching the

Chinese national team and believes the money is being invested in

the wrong places.

”You can’t build a house from the top,” Haan said. ”You build

the base and then go to the top. What China is doing now is what

America did in the seventies; they built from the top.

”A lot of famous players came to America – Franz Beckenbauer,

Pele – but what did they help?”

As evidence, Haan pointed to the fact that China’s national team

was recently eliminated from the third round of Asian qualifying

for the 2014 World Cup, the third such failure in succession. He

thinks China will be best served by developing homegrown


”The Americans started to improve later when they … developed

their own stars, and today they have a very good national team,”

Haan said. ”China will get more publicity when its players rise to

the star level.”

There are also concerns that only three of the 16 coaches in the

top division are Chinese. The other clubs have imported head

coaches from South Korea, Japan, France, Portugal, Serbia, Brazil,

Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Netherlands.

Zhu Jiong and his assistants at Nanchang are paid a fraction of

the $4 million that Tigana and his staff receive at Shanghai.

Such misgivings are lost in the general excitement ahead of the

new campaign. Shanghai, which played in front of an average

attendance of 11,000 in 2011, anticipates selling out its

33,000-seat stadium for the foreseeable future. Guangzhou attracted

regular crowds of 45,000 last season.

More are expected in 2012 as China prepares for its biggest

season yet.