When Didier Drogba’s Chelsea exit was confirmed last week speculation regarding a move to the Chinese Super League intensified. Drogba, 34, is thought to be in the final stages of talks with Shanghai Shenhua—the club that signed Nicolas Anelka from the Blues in January.
On Wednesday Shanghai owner Zhu Jun was quoted in the Oriental Sports Daily saying negotiations over Drogba’s signature were “continuing just as planned,” an indication that the Ivory Coast international is on track to be unveiled at the Super League side when the registration window opens in July. His wage packet will approach £300,000 per week—an amount that makes the £80,000 Juventus are supposedly offering look ridiculous in comparison.
High wages, exorbitantly high wages, are the norm among the foreign players Super League clubs have been signing of late. Each side is allocated five non-Chinese players, although one of the quintet must be Asian. (Players from Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Macau are considered native players.)
Until recently the 16 top-flight clubs were relying almost exclusively on Eastern Europe and Central and South America in their searches for foreign talent. Serbia was, and is, a popular provider of players, as was Honduras. No country, however, approaches Brazil in terms of supplying foreign allocations to the Super League. No fewer than 109 Brazilians have played in the division since 2004, and 26 are on currently on the books of Super League clubs.
One of those players, Guangzhou Evergrande’s Muriqui, was signed at a Chinese record fee of £2.25 million from Atlético Mineiro in 2010—a record that was smashed a year later when Argentine playmaker Dario Conca joined the same club for £6.4 million from Fluminense. Conca, 29, earns about £6.6 million annually in the Super League.
Guangzhou Evergrande are the trendsetters in modern Chinese football. Xu Jiayin’s Evergrande Real Estate Group owns the Pearl River club and has bankrolled it to the tune of £45 million since 2010. Muriqui and Conca are soon to be joined by former Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios—signed for £6.9 million (a new record transfer fee)—and the club will this week contest an Asian Champions League round of 16 match against FC Tokyo.
The reigning Super League champions, Guangzhou are currently top of the table and hoping success at the continental level will turn the club into an internationally-recognisable outfit. To that end, Xu appointed World Cup winner Marcelo Lippi as the club’s new manager on May 17.
Three days later Lippi, who guided Juventus to five titles between 1995 and 2003, won his first Super League match at home to Qingdao Jonoon in front of more than 38,000 fans at the club’s Tianhe Stadium. Guangzhou, with an average attendance of more than 45,000 this season, are the most-supported club in China and significantly more popular than Shanghai Shenhua, who are drawing about 9,800 fans per match—the third-lowest total in a division that has averaged a gate of nearly 18,000 in 2012.
That said, Shanghai have contributed some innovations to the Chinese game, notably in the way its front office is structured. Owner Zhu models his technical staff on the setups of European clubs, and in January he hired former Monaco and Fulham manager Jean Tigana to oversee his side. Tigana clashed with Anelka, however, and the arrangement didn’t last long. The 56-year-old left the club in mid-April as Anelka took on a new role as player-manager.
Sergio Batista, who won the World Cup as a player with Argentina in 1986, is expected to take over as manager before next month and will be entrusted with ushering in the Drogba era. With just 11 points from the first third of the season, Shanghai are in serious danger of relegation and job-one will be to consolidate their Super League status for the 2013 campaign.
That may not be enough for the ambitious Zhu, but his is a club without much in the way of a winning tradition, and China’s is a league where winning is becoming increasingly difficult.
Drogba will surely enjoy the payday, but in football terms the move is hardly ideal. Shanghai Shenhua are a project; Guangzhou Evergrande are the mark.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer