The signings of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka proved the cash-rich Chinese Super League can lure big names, but their abrupt departure shows China cannot yet compete with the top European clubs.
Veteran striker Drogba arrived in a blaze of publicity last year after helping Chelsea lift the Champions League title, pledging to help promote a sport plagued by corruption and low-quality homegrown players.
But barely six months later the powerful Ivory Coast striker has signed with Turkish club Galatasaray, giving no clue as to why he walked out on a reported $300,000-a-week contract with Shanghai Shenhua — who say he is still their player.
“As for his desire to strive to increase the level of Chinese football, that is already nothing more than a fantasy,” the Sina Sports web portal said in an editorial.
Drogba’s exit came after former French international Anelka, a team-mate of the Ivorian at both Chelsea and Shanghai, and said to be on a similar package, left to join Italian giants Juventus last week on loan.
Chinese clubs cannot challenge for superstars such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, who overwhelmingly ply their trade at Europe’s glamorous top clubs.
But the signing of Drogba and Anelka, despite both being in the twilight of their careers, at least showed that China is now on the radar of big-name players, even though the fat pay cheques on offer mask perennial problems.
Long-time Shanghai fan Bobby Lu is not surprised that the two star signings have been lured away to established European clubs, both involved in the latter stages of the Champions League.
“There are those awful football pitches, those uninspired local players who couldn’t even get motivated playing alongside Drogba, and those stupid star-struck fans and media,” he said.
“It’s simple — China isn’t ready for Drogba.”
Lu also lays the blame at the door of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) for not making the most of the superstars to promote the domestic league.
CFA chief Wei Di stepped down this month following accusations that standards had not improved during his three-year tenure.
Wei oversaw a crackdown on match-fixing and bribe-taking that led to the jailing of his two predecessors for corruption, along with a number of former China international footballers.
But it was a sorry story on the pitch with the national team crashing out of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, finishing behind Iraq and Jordan in their group despite the appointment of former Real Madrid boss Jose Antonio Camacho.
Tom Byer, a US coach who recently became head technical advisor of a CFA-administered schools football programme, suggested clubs would do better investing in youth development rather than in stars.
“The top-down approach doesn’t work. It’s old school and no-one can show me any example of it having worked this way anywhere else before,” he told AFP.
He also questioned the motives of the super-rich businessmen bankrolling the sport in China.
“I don’t think they are looking at it so much as a way to develop the game on a macro level. They are just looking to cash in on it,” he said.
Shanghai Shenhua, who finished in the bottom half of the Chinese Super League (CSL) last season despite Drogba’s eight goals, have also been embroiled in financial controversy.
Domestic media reported that the Ivorian had asked football’s international governing body FIFA to nullify his contract after the club defaulted on payments following a shareholder dispute dating back to September.
In a statement Shenhua said Drogba was still under contract to them and accused Galatasaray of making an illegal approach.
But other foreign stars could follow Drogba and Anelka to the exit door.
Two-times Brazilian league player of the year Dario Conca, another big-money CSL signing, is currently in dispute with his club, Guangzhou Evergrande.
Reigning league champions Guangzhou, managed by World Cup-winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi, are also reportedly struggling to keep hold of Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios.
But not all is bleak for the Chinese game. Brazilian striker Muriqui recently extended his contract with Guangzhou and declared a desire to become a naturalised Chinese citizen and play for the national side.
French international Guillaume Hoarau signed a three-year deal with Dalian Aerbin earlier this month, on a salary reported to be double what he was paid at Paris Saint-Germain.