Isaac Mangena
Isaac Mangena

These Chinese football imports are not fong-kong

The rate at which world top football stars are migrating to China, I am starting to believe Sepp Blatter that maybe, just maybe football began in the communist state.

The latest this week was former Chelsea and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba who decided to part ways with the Yorkshire pudding for the Shenghai sushi.

The two-time African footballer of the year will reportedly earn $315 000 a week, making him China’s highest-paid player.

Drogba follows his former teammate at Chelsea, Nicolas Anelka who has been playing at the same team for a year now.

And in the same week of Drogba’s move, Nigeria and Blackburn Rovers striker Ayegbeni Yakubu, and Orlando Pirates and Zambian AFCON winning mid-fielder Isaac Chansa also packed for the Dragon country.

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is also rumored to be on his way there.

Ironically most of these top stars were plying their trade in England. This is the same country whose fans got angry upon hearing Blatter say, after all, football was not invented in the Queen’s Land.

“Sepp Blatter and his cronies have not only denied Great Britain the World Cup, but they’re now also denying us the credit for having invented football itself,” cried well-known English blogger Guy Walters of Blatter’s blurb.

I am not so sure about the real origins of football. But I am definitely sure of where it will end – and it’s going to be in China.

But putting football and China in one sentence is just so weird.

This is the country known for its kung-Fu and gymnastics. Or perhaps even basketball (forget their physical disadvantage). Football has never been their strong point.

They are placed 73 in recent FIFA rankings, five spots below our own Bafana Bafana.

They have never won any major tournaments and failed to impress even when they hosted the Asian cup in 2004 when they were beaten by Japan, while coached by current Alex Cape Town coach Foppe de Haan.

Even when they hosted the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, their football team’s performance was dismal.

The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, its side failed to score in any of its three matches.

Personally, I don’t even know the Chinese team colours (I assume they are red) or any of their players.

So will moving to China by these players change the fortunes for the Chinese’s minnow league?

I think it will. Even if it won’t be overnight.

Football is a business currently, and the Chinese have all the money in the world needed. We have just witnessed in the English Premier League recently when Manchester City won the league, that money can buy a team success.

Manchester City was nothing few years ago.

Some say these players are being taken into retirement in China. They have reached their sell-by date and where else to dump them than in China. Many say it’s the beginning of the end for these players.

But let’s take a look at Drogba. He is 34, in his prime. Just came back from winning the European League with Chelsea. This is the man who is very hungry, has been a regular for Chelsea and for Ivory Coast. Underestimate this guy at your own risk.

What may suffer is the brand that is “Drogba”. Going to China means we’ll see him less on Wednesday nights during the UEFA Champions League. But that doesn’t mean that Drogba Lager beer would no longer fill glasses in Ivory Coast.

He is an influential captain who is expected to play a greater role for his country at the AFCON in South Africa early next year.

Even foreign coaches are flocking to China. Former Argentina coach Sergio Batista is Drogba’s coach at Shenhua, and so is Italy’s World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi who is in charge at Guangzhou Evergrande. Like Shenhua, Evergrande is an ambitious club that has a legion of big foreign players including Argentine Dario Conca and Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios who earn millions of dollars and have all managed to keep the team at the top in the country.

They are first on the Super League. Shenhua is 12th with only three wins to their name all season. They hope the signing of Drogba and Yakubu will help them win their first title since 2003.

Drogba’s baptism of dragon fire would be against his former rivals in the Premier League Manchester United on 25 July as part of their pre-season tour.

And for business men who know their markets very well, China is one of the biggest growing economies in the world. Europe is in trouble. Many will probably follow these big stars to China with sponsorships.

But moving to less-known leagues does not always guarantee that a player will shine, no matter the money. David Beckham’s move to the US is a case in point. Apart from bringing his wife Victoria closer to the shopping isles of New York, it did a disservice to his football career, and he was dumped by England. He made more money off the field with sponsors and modeling contracts than he did on the field.

The truth is the game of football, just like any other business, is business. And just as it attracts top players, it can spit them in less than the final whistle in 90-minutes.

And I am sure if you were to be approached by another company offering you twice what you get paid now tax-free, chances are you won’t even think twice.

Chansa probably won’t have any role to play at Orlando Pirates next year. He would be warming the bench and in few months’ time, he would be unemployed, just like many before him. The millions in Chinese Yuan will sustain him for ages to come while also giving him another chance in playing football.

The only problem with football in China is corruption. Details coming out of the recent match-fixing scandal investigation prove how endemic the problem is.

A funny example quoted by The Economist is of a club owner who got angry at his team for, not failing to win a match, but failing to rig it. Du Yungi’s side Qingdao was losing 3-nil in a second division match, when assistant coach’s order to the goalkeeper, ensured he was able to deflect a chip-shot from one of his defenders that could have been an own goal and made the score four. After the game an irate Du Yungi lashed out at his charges because he had lost a bet that the game would end four-nil, instead of three. The scandal was to be known as “chip-shot gate”.

Then there are reports of players buying places on the national team, leading to one day more than a hundred players named on a national squad.

Another problem I believe is the traditional emphasise by the Chinese on the individual than a “team”. Have you noticed how they do well in individual sporting codes at the Olympics, than where a team is involved?

Their one-child policy doesn’t help as well. It reduces the pool where soccer players may emerge.

And the proximity of the state on the game is also a problem. Most team owners and sponsors are state-owned enterprises, or business tycoons who are regular funders of the Chinese Communist Party.

These problems are the reasons why pundits believe, at least in football, China is unlikely to rule the world in the near future.

“In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke,” The Economist said.

“Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure.”

Perhaps the Chinese just need someone like Blatter to remind them of the hereditary claim to the sport for them to take it seriously.

May be, just maybe the dream of China’s future leader Xin Jinping of “first, qualify for another world cup, second host a world cup, and finally win a world cup” would be realised.

Judging by their furious work rate and dedication in everything they do, and the amount at which they import superstars, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese Football flourishes very soon.

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