A hugely expensive, powerful African ex-Chelsea striker arriving in July to rescue a disappointing Shenhua season following big investments gone wrong at the start of the year?
Dejavu. That’s the feeling your correspondent had watching a casually-dressed Demba Ba being introduced to the Hongkou Stadium crowd before the game last Saturday, just as Drogba was three years ago.
lt all feels so familiar. Yet when Didier Drogba was mobbed at Pudong International Airport in July 2012, it was a fantastic globally-aired advert for Chinese football, spectacularly showcasing the rising power of the league to attract the world’s best players and the huge passion that exists for the game here.
If that at least left a lasting impression overseas, of Chinese football, for Shenhua specifically, it was all rather short term as Drogba, and Anelka, were pawns in an ownership battle and left by the end of the year.
Their flying visit highlighted problems inside Shenhua, many of which are fairly typical of most CSL teams. Mainly a short-term approach to everything, and a gulf in professionalism between CSL teams and the top clubs in Europe where the big names come from.
Adjusting to this significant gap is a real challenge for most players – unable to contain his frustration at his teammates’ ineptitude, Drogba himself once smashed up dressing room furniture in the aftermath of a particularly poor Shenhua result.
Some of the problems faced by Chinese clubs in providing the right kind of environment for big name stars aren’t really their fault. China’s overall talent pool seriously lacks depth, the most basic reason being not enough kids are playing the game – and although that is changing for the better, the results will take quite a while to emerge.
So when Demba Ba steps on the pitch, and he’s not given the same kind of service he got at Chelsea, no-one should be surprised.
In fact any top player moving down to a lower standard league later in his career will face this problem, no matter where the league is. It’s just that in China, there exists this huge disparity between the financial strength of the clubs and the general quality of the players in its native country. There are few other places like this, except perhaps the middle east.
However, it’s off the pitch where clubs have more control over matters, especially considering this financial might and its power to change things at development level. And off the pitch is where Shenhua need to improve in order to stop this cycle of needing big signings mid-season and staying mired in short-termism.
During Drogba’s time, a Chinese football journalist told your correspondent an amusing anecdote – Drogba had been travelling on Shenhua’s team coach and was shocked to find a discarded banana skin lying in the gangway, and commented how one would never see such a thing at Chelsea.
Indeed, Shenhua have been leaving banana skins for themselves to slip on for a long time. Under Zhu Jun’s control of the club from 2007 to 2014, the club’s youth system was stopped, and when Greenland took over in 2014 they found not only the grass roots system decrepit – one of the first things they had to do was install a functional hot water system at the teams Kangqiao training centre in Pudong district.
Zhu also oversaw a fire sale of all the club’s best domestic talent. The former chairman felt better value was to be found in the foreign transfer market – this is correct given the shockingly low price-quality ratio of top Chinese players.
However, out of a staggering 40 or more foreign players brought during his reign, only one (Gio Moreno) remained for more than 18 months, meaning the club was basically starting from scratch every single season in terms of its most important squad members.
And here we go again with Sissoko and Ba. Things have not changed much under new owners Greenland, and short-term thinking still dominates. In their first season last year, three new foreign players were brought in, including journeyman Columbian striker Luiz Ramirez for an incredible 3 million Euros. He left, presumably for free, after just half a season having scored only one goal.
Come the summer transfer window last year, it was time to change things up again, with South American forwards Lucas Viatri and Paulo Henrique joining – the latter costing 4 million Euros. But Viatri was off just months later at the end of the season, and now it seems Henrique may have to leave to make way for Demba Ba.
If he stays, then it will be a player who has been at the club for an even shorter amount of time – Tim Cahill – who will leave instead.
This constant coming and going of foreign players arriving every single transfer window is a reflection of the management’s lack of a long term plan. Shenhua’s board may say Ba and and Sissoko are of higher quality than currently exists in the squad, which would be true.
But why were players of this quality not brought in when Greenland initially took over instead of yet another batch of mediocre journeymen destined to stay for just one season? It just looks as if they are making it up as they go along. Forgive your correspondent for scepticism – but the transfer history facts speak for themselves, there’s little reason to have confidence that these two former EPL stars will stay for very long.
Yes most foreigners are never going to spend their whole careers in China at one club, but surely at least 2-3 seasons is a reasonable expectation and a period in which the money lavished on them can offer a bigger return on investment on and off the pitch, before they’re shooed out of the Hongkou revolving door for the next new foreign faces?
More long term thinking is obviously required as soon as possible.
The club’s official goal this season was to aim for 3rd and settle for sixth. However, with relegation out of the question, and Asian Champions League qualification an unrealistic aim, there’s effectively nothing to play for so it’s time to use the rest of this season to lay long term plans.
A easy and simple step in this direction could be made by making room on the bench for youth at the expense of career reservists like Fan Lingjiang and Tao Jin or past it 37-year-old Jiang Kun.
Indeed 20-year-old prospect Xu Junmin was named substitute last week – but more of his ilk need real match experience if they are to learn from the undoubted talents of Ba and Sissisko – who in turn must be kept at the club long enough to leave more than a fleeting impression.
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