On Monday of last week, Africans were protesting on the streets of Guangzhou after one of their own was killed after being taken into police custody. A day later, Didier Drogba, international footballing superstar and a hero across Africa, announced that he’d be joining Shanghai Shenhua in July. At the end of his statement, in what many may have viewed as a throw away sentence, Drogba declared that he wanted to “help improve the links that China and Africa share”. Knowing the growingly connected, but often tense relationship that exists between Africa and China, there is a lot to this statement. Drogba the footballing megastar, the peace maker, the humanitarian appears to be setting a major off-field task for himself, but if he’s even partially successful, he could truly add to his legacy.
Drogba’s impact on the pitch is sure to be massive, but its what he might be able to do off it that’s the most intriguing. While Nicolas Anelka made headlines for joining the CSL, he is not a superstar on the same level as Drogba, nor is he involved in as many off-field activities as Drogba. While Anelka is known as “Le Sulk”, Drogba’s known for his charisma (and his diving). He has been credited with playing a crucial role in ending the civil war and bringing peace to his country, he is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program, and his foundation is active in building hospitals and schools in Africa.
China has been extremely active in Africa over the past 10 years, helping advance infrastructure, working on major building projects, and participating in mining and other projects. In the best light, the Chinese are stepping in where nobody else will to help build schools, roads, etc. in some of the nation’s that need it most. In the worst light, they are new imperialists, playing on Africa’s needy state and plundering it of its natural resources. At the same time, Africans in China often face racism and unthinkable treatment. What will it mean that one of the world’s most famous Africans will now be plying his footballing trade in China?
Didier Drogba will be the “pied piper” in ways that Anelka could never have been, fans will come out to watch the guy who only months before scored goals to help his club win the Champions League and FA Cup. There will be large crowds wherever Shenhua go and “euro snobs” and neutrals who’ve ignored the CSL will come out to see him play. I avoided comparisons to David Beckham going to the MLS when Anelka came, but with Drogba, they are appropriate, he CAN have that kind of impact here. His impact will be all the greater if he chooses to get involved in off-field activities to promote grassroots football in China or helping to foster more interaction between young Chinese and Africans through football.
The man has shown that amazing things can be done through football, even bringing about a cease fire in a war. For anyone else, the task of bringing Africa and China closer would seem insurmountable, but Didier Drogba’s experiences and celebrity may be enough to make the impossible possible. I look forward to watching him on the pitch, but even more to seeing what he’ll achieve off it.