China’s graft-addled Super League sank so low it was pulled from national TV, but the signing of French star Nicolas Anelka highlights a gold rush that could finally drag Chinese soccer out of the mire.
The much-traveled marksman, nicknamed “Le Sulk,” is an unlikely poster-boy, but China’s most high-profile recruit symbolizes a new dawn for the country — and is the likely pioneer for an influx of well-known players.
Anelka’s two-year deal with Shanghai Shenhua, who finished in the lower half of the table last season, comes just a year after the Super League’s nadir when a major match-fixing crackdown left senior officials facing jail.
The corruption problems were so acute that when last season kicked off, state broadcaster CCTV refused to broadcast the matches and the league was without a major sponsor.
And yet in the space of just a few months, the Super League has cast off its woes with a series of big-money signings — funded largely by profits from a breakneck property boom — helping draw record crowds.
“The potential of Chinese football is, and always has been, massive. This is why we are seeing names like Anelka come to China,” said Cameron Wilson, China-based founder of the wildeastfootball.net Web site.
“The long-term outlook for the sport here is bright,” Wilson said.
The 32-year-old striker, who will complete his transfer next month for an undisclosed sum, is expected to be followed to Shanghai by French coach Jean Tigana and, if the club has its way, his Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba.
However, Anelka is not the first player lured by the mega-riches available in the Chinese league, with his weekly wages reportedly in the region of ￡200,000 (US$312,000) — although Shenhua dispute the figure.
In July, little-known Argentine Dario Conca smashed the Chinese record when he signed a US$10 million contract with Guangzhou Evergrande, who also splashed out US$7.5 million on Brazilian forwards Cleo and Muriqui.
The club, bankrolled by leading property firm Evergrande, were richly rewarded when they swept to the Super League title by 15 points — just two seasons after being relegated for match-fixing.
“The gold rush in Chinese football started in earnest in the summer when Guangzhou Evergrande [signed] Conca,” Wilson said. “It was a massive signing in terms of prestige and it really made all the other clubs sit up and notice.”
Conca was the catalyst for a sudden revival in the Super League’s fortunes with a record 4.2 million fans clicking through turnstiles and the usual crowd trouble and scandal largely absent.
According to the Titan Sports Weekly, the renaissance followed government orders for real-estate companies to front up the money for soccer clubs to bring in more foreign players.
“The nation’s top leadership has ordered large-scale development for football, they have asked each company to invest at least 200 million yuan [US$31 million],” Titan quoted an unnamed real-estate mogul as saying. “No matter if it is a foreign player or foreign coach, now we can move forward with this and raise the overall level of the Super League.”
For the new season starting in March, the average budget of each of the 16 Super League clubs will increase to about US$20 million, the report said.
Shanghai’s benefactor is colorful industrialist Zhu Jun, who tried to hire Argentina legend Diego Maradona as a coach and once said he had launched a bid for Liverpool, according to reports.