Fans hope Anelka's arrival stops rot in football

Sat, Mar 10, 2012, 00:00

FRENCH FOOTBALLER Nicolas Anelka has faced many challenges over a long career, which has seen him play for Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.

But at the start of a new Chinese Super League this weekend, millions of football fans in China are watching Shanghai Shenua’s big-name signing to see if his arrival can turn around a league devastated by corruption and poor performances.

The government has intervened to stop the rot in Chinese soccer and launched a major crackdown on graft. So far, dozens of senior soccer officials have been brought before the courts on corruption charges, and the scandal has claimed the Chinese Football Association’s president, Xie Yalong, and his successor, Nan Yong.

According to the world football governing body Fifa, China has the world’s biggest football population with 26 million players, but basketball is growing in popularity because of the corruption tainting soccer.

Corrupt refs are known as “black whistles” for the flagrant way they try to alter the course of a game to earn their backhanders. And China again failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, for the third time in a row.

Anelka is known as a man of few words, generally cool under pressure, and he appeared sanguine ahead of his league debut for the team in China’s financial capital.

“Of course, there’s a lot of attention on me right now, but I’m just here to do my best for Shanghai Shenhua, to score goals and play well for the team and the fans.” Anelka was lured to Shanghai by the owner Zhu Jun, a 45-year-old online gaming and IT billionaire who bought Shenhua in 2007.

His move from Chelsea has reportedly made the 32-year-old the highest-paid footballer in the world, on a weekly wage in excess of €240,000.

His coach at Shanghai will be fellow Frenchman Jean Tigana.

Chinese fans are hoping that it is a sign of change in the game. Champions Guangzhou Evergrande have spent nearly €40 million on boosting their team in the past year, including €8 million to bring Argentina’s Dario Conca from Fluminense in Brazil.

Other contenders include Dalian Aerbin, which has been named alongside Shanghai as a potential buyer for Anelka’s former Chelsea team-mate, Didier Drogba.

Vice-president Xi Jinping, who recently played a bit of GAA during a visit to Ireland, has called for rejuvenation of the domestic game.“China is determined to make its football go to the top level. But this might take a long time,” he said.

Everyone hopes Anelka does better than ex-England international Paul Gascoigne, who played four games and scored two goals for Gansu Tianma in 2002, before the Sars epidemic emptied stadiums and ended his Chinese experience.