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Does Anelka Matter? Yes and No

By now, you’ve all surely heard that Nic Anelka has joined Shanghai Shenhua, by far the biggest signing in the history of Chinese football.  The question of whether this signing matters seems downright stupid, the simple answer is that of course it does, this is massive news for the Chinese Super League, and specifically, Shenhua.  However, much like David Beckham to the LA Galaxy, Anelka’s arrival is likely to have the least impact where it matters most, on the pitch.

We are not like American soccer fans here at and we don’t think the arrival of Anelka will suddenly turn a middling Shenhua side into champions.  Shenhua is stil some distance from contending, especially as they are unlikely to keep all of their young talent when the transfer window opens up.  Anelka’s target won’t be the title, instead it will be a striker’s traditional target, putting the ball in the back of the net (and the number of times he does that).

During the eight years of the Chinese Super League, the average total for the leading scorer is 18 (though Li Jinyu’s 26 in 2006 raises the average).  Anelka’s target has to be matching the 15 goals that this year’s leading scorer, Muriqui, reached.  Anything short of that would be viewed as a major failure.  Even for a player like Anelka, that’s surely going to be a ton of pressure.

A look at this year’s scoring chart will tell how easy it is for a Chinese Super League team to find a foreigner who can score in the double digits (or at least come very close to doing so).  14 foreigners scored 8 or more goals in the Chinese Super League this season, with the majority of names being paid less than a million dollars and Muriqui going for $3.5 million.  On the same day as the Anelka announcement, it appears Beijing Guoan is very close to signing Marius Niculae, a name that will immediately send most people to Wikipedia.  Niculae is your typical Chinese Super League foreigner, a decent player but far from a star, likely to contribute somewhere between 8-10 goals and make less than what Anelka will make in a month (if you believe some of the rumors).

With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine Zhu Jun’s investment in Anelka will pay off on the field.  Perhaps Anelka will surprise us all and score well over 20, but we at would expect him to be in the neighborhood of 15 goals this year.  Where the signing will make an impact is away from the pitch, it’s sure to put a lot of butts in seats at Hongkou next year, a much needed change after Shenhua averaged under 10,000 supporters this season.  However, one wonders how big a concern that is for Zhu and Shenhua’s management.

The prestige of the Anelka signing cannot be denied and for an attention whore like Zhu, that certainly inspired his decision.  The world’s media suddenly discovered the Chinese Super League and Chinese soccer for reasons other than a scandal.  It could be argued that Anelka is the biggest name to ever play in a Chinese sports league, bigger than Marbury in the CBA.  That he chose China over the MLS came as a real surprise to this correspondent, if he enjoys his time at Shenhua, it’s likely even more will follow in his footsteps.

I’m certainly not convinced the signing makes sense from a footballing standpoint, but in every other way, it’s a major coup and it has me looking forward to next season all the more.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.



  1. Jere. Paschke-Wood

    13/12/2011 at 05:38

    As an American, I have to take issue with the “We are not like American soccer fans here at WEF and we don’t think the arrival of Anelka will suddenly turn a middling Shenhua side into champions” comment. I think any knowledgeable American soccer fan – and yes, we do exist – didn’t think that the arrival of an aging former star would turn what was then a poor club in the Galaxy into immediate champions. It’s true that the casual soccer fan in America – and by that I mean those who take their kids to matches every once in a while and probably has never heard of, say, Petr Cech, was very excited to have such a well-known figure as Beckham on the Galaxy and probably thought it would lead to instant success, but that is not the only group of fans here.

    With that said, I think the reason Anelka chose Shenhua came down purely to fiscal reasons. Aside from Beckham, Henry and Rafa Marquez and maybe Robbie Keane, no one makes that kind of money in the MLS, and the only clubs that would seem to be willing to pay it are New York and L.A., neither of which really need Anelka that bad.
    I do think he’ll score goals in the league, but obviously that’s not all it takes to win titles, and as haphazardly run as Shenhua is, it would be hard to see them suddenly turn into the best team in China, just because they’re over-paying for Anelka.

    • bcheng

      13/12/2011 at 09:00

      I’m sorry, that was meant as a joke, a shot at those casual US fans and the media. Two out of the three main writers at WEF are from the US and are fans of MLS club.

      You’re right about it being purely financial. The reality is that in China, there are a number of clubs that have the money to pay an Anelka like deal, but they keep losing out to the Middle East and the MLS, where they are beloved by fans on the field and almost totally anonymous when off the pitch. In China, Anelka will be mobbed everywhere he goes, the attention and his being THE MAN in the league will certainly help his ego.

    • Bobby

      13/12/2011 at 09:46

      The reason MLS not paying football stars big time money is because that league is by far the lesser sports league in the USA,I guess players played for NFL/MBL/NBA all earned big money,because they have a massive,devoted following and a very mature financial structure.

      And here in China,CSL is by far the best run league and each game had a average attendance of 20,000.That’s why Anelka earned so much money, and considered Shenhua doesn’t have to pay any transfer fee for him(while Guangzhou paid 10m euros for Conca on transfer fees alone),and the international coverage shenhua have recieved so far, I do think it’s a good deal.

      And please dont judge Anelka on the goals he scored,Trust me he can do much more than just soring goals.

  2. Steve

    13/12/2011 at 15:25

    Mixed feelings on this one:

    – Undoubtedly a top-class player, but only if his mind & body are in the right place

    – Will undoubtedly score goals, but needs a quality midfield behind him which we don’t necessarily have right now

    – Is it really good PR for the CSL that it makes headlines only for big-money moves? Similar situation to the MLS in that it’s a bit damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t in terms of media coverage for non-European leagues

    – Hideous, awful, stupid waste of money — anyone know how many times you’d need to seel out Hongkou and win the CSL in order to make back the wages? Doesn’t really seem to matter in this weird little world of football though

    Getting away from the negatives, he’s a player I do look forward to seeing this coming year. One of the better performances I’ve ever seen in the flesh (caveat: I grew up mostly watching lower-leave footy) came when Anelka played for Man City at the Riverside a good few years back. Not just sharp in front of goal, but carried the whole team with his movement, workrate & attitude that day.

    I wouldn’t be completely surprised if he ends up leaving the country after 6 months or completely phones it in & becomes a lazy, overweight embarassment either, though. Can’t seem to shake the pessimism…

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