Three coaches, boardroom upheaval and a reported players’ strike — Didier Drogba’s first season in China has not exactly been smooth, but it looks like he will stick around next year.
Speculation about Drogba’s future has been intense, but the Ivorian striker appeared committed to the Chinese Super League (CSL) when he spoke of making a fresh start with the club next season.
“Because I joined Shenhua relatively late, I didn’t prepare with the team early in the season, so our results this year were not very good, but I hope next season I can start again from the beginning with Shenhua,” he said, according to the Shanghai Morning Post.
Drogba has scored eight goals in 11 games since joining former Chelsea colleague Nicolas Anelka in Shanghai mid-term, earning the nickname “Devil Beast” as he terrorized Chinese defenses.
However, despite his prolific record, Shenhua finished a lowly ninth out of 16 teams.
It is a disappointing return after the club’s owner, video-game mogul Zhu Jun, splashed out on Anelka and Drogba — who are reportedly on hundreds of thousands of US dollars a week — in a bid to land Shenhua’s first title in nearly a decade.
However, after a season of serious internal strife, it is something of a surprise that both players are still at the club.
Zhu made world headlines when he spent big to lure Anelka, China’s first direct import from the English Premier League, and French coach Jean Tigana to the Hongkou Football Stadium.
However, ex-Fulham boss Tigana was hit by a player revolt against his training methods after just five games in charge and was dismissed in April after weeks of speculation and rumors.
At a game against Tianjin, Tigana departed the stadium before the kick off, leaving Shenhua without a coach for the match and with empty seats on the home bench.
The situation barely improved when Anelka, who had no coaching experience and is nicknamed “Le Sulk” for his moody demeanor, announced he had been appointed as Tigana’s replacement.
Anelka was furious when Zhu brought in ex-Argentina coach Sergio Batista to helm the team, but he was soon placated and when Drogba arrived in July it looked as if the club had turned the corner.
Drogba was given a hero’s welcome by hundreds of cheering fans at the city’s Pudong Airport, with Shanghai police saying it was their biggest operation ever mounted for a celebrity.
Chinese soccer’s biggest star quickly became a hit on the pitch, delighting the fans by scoring a brace in a 5-1 demolition of local rivals Hangzhou Greentown in early August.
However, the feel-good factor did not last long, as by the end of the month Drogba and Anelka became pawns in a boardroom dispute that raised questions over their futures in Shanghai.
Zhu said his fellow owners had promised him a majority stake, because of his heavy investment, and he threatened to withhold the foreign players’ salaries unless they handed it over.
A few weeks ago, pictures of casually attired players strolling around instead of training filled the Shanghai back pages, as newspapers said they were protesting at not being paid.
Drogba and Anelka missed several games towards the end of the season, apparently because of injury, but many fans drew a link with the ownership dispute — which is still dragging on.
“I don’t think many people believed they were injured,” Shenhua fan Ma Haiping, 31, said.
The team’s unconvincing form was also cause for tension, with Drogba smashing furniture in the dressing room, according to reports, after a draw with local rivals Shanghai Shenxin in September.
Drogba, who spoke of raising the league’s profile and even improving ties between China and Africa when he arrived in Shanghai, seems to have taken it in his stride — and is a huge hit with fans.
“Drogba is massive, he motivates the players, he reactivated Anelka and terrified the opponents. He’s the king, no doubt,” Shenhua fan Bobby Lu said.
After scoring in the final game of the season, a 3-0 win over Qing-dao Jonoon, he signed off with a promise to return next year.
“Wait for me, I’ll be back,” Drogba told the Oriental Sports Daily, as he left Hongkou Football Stadium on Saturday last week.