19 December ~ The Chinese Super League and most of the country's media outlets are in the middle of a hyperbolic meltdown and it is all thanks to Nicolas Anelka signing for Shanghai Shenhua. His perpetually unimpressed face is everywhere in the city and the notoriously fickle Shanghainese populace are suddenly talking about their local team again. Since the capture of Anelka last Tuesday, the club's main supporters group, the Blue Devils, have been besieged by ticket enquiries for the new season, which is due to start in late March 2012. Shenhua's giant Hongkou stadium, which rarely fills a third of its capacity let alone sells out, might suddenly be the place to be at the start of the season.
It is not just the fans who are excited. The transfer is a massive PR coup for Shenhua's much-maligned owner, Zhu Jan. The businessman loves the limelight. After four years of meddling in team affairs, abruptly selling the club's best players and threatening to move Shanghai's only football team out of town, he has been savouring the attention.
However, like so much in China, it is not what you see but what you can’t that is important. Very recently, maybe in the last month or so, an unnamed company with links to the city’s municipal government ploughed substantial sums of money into the club’s bank account. This influx of money is not just for football reasons but also in the name of civic pride and is a direct response to recent crowned CSL champions, Guangzhou Evergreen.
The newly promoted side embarked on a massive spending spree at the start of the season, courtesy of their owner, Xu Jiayin, a prominent real estate magnate with links to the Chinese Communist Party. An expensively assembled squad of Chinese internationals and South Americans duly romped to the title, only losing two games all season and finishing 13 points ahead of second place Beijing Guoan.
Guangzhou’s cash plus Shenhua's disappointing 11th place finish in the league was clearly enough to force the hands of some very powerful people. It is one thing for Shanghai to have an under-performing team – Shenhua haven't won a title in almost a decade – but to be shown up by upstarts from Guangdong Province is simply unacceptable.
As a result, Anelka finds himself in an improbable situation. Leading the scoring charts isn’t going to be enough. Shenhua’s financiers will also be expecting the Frenchman to restore a sense of glamour and prestige to Shanghainese football. Quite how Le Sulk will cope is anyone’s guess. Andrew Crawford