The spotlight on foreign stars of the CSL is rarely edifying, but even with tempered expectations Carlos Tevez is enduring a troubled start to life at Shanghai Shenhua. In fairness to him, most things about Shenhua are troubled these days; a club taking the term implosion more literally than most in having their stadium catch fire two weeks ago.
His first action in China was to crash out of the Champions League at the preliminary qualifying round to an underwhelming Brisbane Roar side, who currently sit bottom of their ACL group. A big opening day CSL win over Jiangsu was to prove a false dawn – a shock victory at the time looking less so in hindsight, as Jiangsu have failed to win a league match and sit near the foot of the table.
Since then, poor individual performances in losses against Beijing and Hebei were already seeing fans question his value to the team, before a minor injury kept him out of last weekend’s fixture. A fixture that Shenhua went on to win, whilst Tevez and family saw fit to entertain themselves in ways that were not well received by local press.
The nature of his performances so far have been puzzling – a man known for his work rate has been reduced to a lethargic bystander. Throughout a career not short of professional hiccups, Tevez’s on-field commitment has rarely been in question; that willingness to throw himself into a game leading to fan favourite status everywhere he’s been.
To see a foreigner in China flounder is nothing new, but the formula for a successful import is still something of a mystery. The split nature of teams – a handful of superstars expected to ‘lift’ to an entire side – brings with it unusual pressures. Players that have led hugely successful careers elsewhere often look to alter their own game, thinking their influence needs to run deeper through a side. Arrival in China often coincides with later career stages, when physical limitations are already making individuals re-think their style of play – and working through that whilst trying to inspire those around them can prove too much.
In theory, a tenacious Carlos Tevez harrying already unsure CSL defences into making mistakes sounds ideal – but that’s not the player who seems to have arrived. As games drift by, Tevez has been dropping deeper and deeper, obviously looking to get more of the ball, but in doing so taking himself away from the areas in which he can be most useful. This behaviour ought to already have a name in Shanghainese – technically it can referred to as ‘doing an Anelka’.
Nicolas is not fondly remembered around those parts, and if Carlos wishes to avoid a similar legacy he’ll need to first prove the team are better with him in it – a return to the side is expected once he regains fitness, but will Gus Poyet wish to change if the rest of the squad find a degree of coherence?
All of which is missing the wider issue of integration – are the better players in China simply the ones that can adapt to living there? There’s a strong case for saying so, the success stories tending to have either the strength of will to bend the nature of those around them (Didier Drogba), or the laid-back flexibility to deal with whatever crap comes their way (Shenhua club captain Gio Moreno). Mentality seems a better indicator of success than any particular play style or natural ability – a factor that makes the scouting process for Chinese clubs all the more difficult.
Sympathy is predictably in short supply for some of the world’s best paid sportspeople, but while unhappy players in the West are acknowledged as being of little value to the club they play for, those in developing leagues seem expected to get on with it regardless. An unwritten part of the contract they signed to get there, perhaps? Background seems to play a role also – Europeans arguably struggle most with what is a significant cultural gap, and coming from clubs where their every need has been seamlessly catered for since adolescence.
Carlos’ opportunity to integrate, however, could hardly be better – Shenhua’s standout players this season are his South American colleagues: club captain Gio Moreno, and a strangely reinvigorated Fredy Guarin, all playing for a Uruguayan boss. Tevez has faced more than a few difficult moments in his career, and has generally let his football do the talking. If he can do the same in China, his time in the CSL may yet count for something.