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.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015