Nicolas Anelka finally touched down in Shanghai last week and made his first public appearance at an event in the city where he was not only introduced to a crowd of admiring fans but also helped launch a new online game for Shenhua owner Zhu Jun’s company Ninth City. With the entire city buzzing in anticipation of seeing Anelka pull on Shenhua blue at Hongkou stadium in a matter of weeks, and Shenhua season tickets more than doubling in price, the star power of the French striker is already having an effect before he has even kicked a ball in China. Adem Ali draws some fascinating parallels between Beckham’s move to the MLS and the arrival of the biggest name to play in the Chinese Super League yet.
In 2007 Philip Anschutz convinced one of the most recognizable faces in the world to leave Spain and come to the USA. The fact that this face, David Beckham, could also kick a ball well seemed only a bonus to the main appeal of having a global celebrity in Major League Soccer. A man who gave Real Madrid, already one of the most famous clubs in the world, US$600 million in merchandise sales over four years was nothing to take lightly and MLS finally had its cash cow.
The ensuing media frenzy brought MLS to the attention of millions who never even knew of its existence before. With Beckham in the league people wanted to watch matches (at least ones involving him), cities wanted their own team and players abroad saw it as a viable destination.
Now the Chinese Super League appears to be going through a similar metamorphosis which the MLS experienced a few years ago. Shanghai Shenhua owner Zhu Jun has convinced Nicolas Anelka to come to China and has recently tried to acquire Didier Drogba. Anelka is no Beckham though and will not likely help the Chinese Super League as much as Golden Balls or even Drogba would.
When Beckham arrived in the MLS he kept repeating that he wanted to help the game grow across the USA and knew it wouldn’t be a feat accomplished over night. Beckham has been known for his professionalism and commitment to whatever club he has played for, receiving praise from Alex Ferguson to Fabio Capello.
Anelka however has been notorious for his bad behavior earning the nickname Le Sulk. Shanghai Shenhua will be his 9th club as opposed to the LA Galaxy being Beckham’s 4th. The odds are more in favor of Anelka jumping ship if things don’t go his way then him seeing things through. This is a man after all who led a rebellion of the France squad at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The growth of MLS during the current Beckham era in MLS has been impressive. New team Seattle Sounders have smashed attendance records previously held by the LA Galaxy while Toronto FC has broken ground on a youth academy designed after Ajax’s world famous football factory. Beckham has brought attention to the potential of North America for businessmen and players alike.
Some changes are already happening in this regard for China. Former AFC coach of the year Takeshi Okada is now managing Hangzhou Greentown and has talked of the league’s potential. No doubt that a country with a population as large as China’s could produce some talented footballers with the help of proper development. A strong healthy league means that clubs can focus on youth development which helps both the league and national team.
If Anelka can improve the Chinese Super League by pushing up attendance numbers and make the league attractive for marketable foreign talent then businesses will want to invest in Chinese football. China could have the premier football league in Asia one day, but whether that will be with or without the help of Le Sulk is for time to tell.
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