Soccer star chooses China over U.S.

Big paychecks luring big soccer players to corrupt leagues

By Nicholas Nehamas

Didier Drogba, one of the world’s best known soccer players, is moving to China, dashing American hopes that he would come here.

America’s Major League Soccer has lured other former English Premier League stars like Thierry Henry (now of the New York Red Bulls) and David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy).

Chelsea’s Didier Drogba celebrates after winning the European Champions League final in May 2012. Drogba scored a late tying goal and the winning penalty in a shoot-out to give his team the win against Bayern Munich. (Reuters)

Excitement in China

Instead, little-known Shanghai Shenhua in China’s Super League managed to snag Drogba’s signature, reportedly offering the Cote D’Ivoire native $30 million over two-and-a-half years. That means Drogba will earn a cool $314,000 a week. Not bad.

For the first time, Chinese clubs are signing big name players in their prime, leading what the government hopes will be a renaissance in the country’s much-maligned soccer league. It’s a big change from the days when washed-up former stars like Paul Gascoigne and Carsten Jancker came to China for a few months, collected their pay checks and then got the heck out of Dazhou.

After the announcement yesterday morning, the striker’s name immediately began trending on Weibo, a Chinese social media site. “Drogba came to China,” one user wrote. “Super League worth watching now.”

America’s Twitterati had a different take:

Why here, why now?

China might not seem like a natural destination for a player who scored the winning penalty in this year’s European Champions League final. The Chinese national team has performed disastrously since qualifying for its first ever World Cup in 2002, and the quality of play in the domestic league is poor, well behind leagues in Japan and South Korea, as Evan Osnos points out in his New Yorker blog from China. Hooliganism and fan violence are also common off the pitch.

And match-fixing is a constant concern. Just last week, a Chinese judge sentenced eight high-ranking officials in the Chinese Football Association and four former national team players to lengthy jail terms for taking bribes.

Follow the money

But the government is making a concerted effort to invest more in football and clean up the game’s act. That means bringing in the world’s best players and coaches in big money moves. SuperLeague champions Guanzhou Evergrande have already signed Marcello Lippi, who coached Italy’s  2010 World Cup, and Dario Conca, an Argentinian midfielder who was, until Drogba’s announcement, the third highest-paid player in the world. Guanzhou’s latest star signing is Lucas Barrios, a Paraguayan attacker who was the top scorer in the German Bundesliga in 2010.

“The Chinese league and the entire industry in China have improved hugely in the past two years,” Barrios told the China Daily. “That partly explained why I decided to try China. I believe that the league’s market value will surge in the years ahead.”

But there are also concerns that China is ignoring youth soccer development in favor of bringing in high profile stars. The New York Times reports that China has fewer than 10,000 under-12 players registered. Japan, a much smaller nation, has 300,000.

New kids on the block

Shenhua set a new standard for Chinese soccer by signing Drogba, capping a string of high-profile moves. In January, the club signed another former Chelsea player, French striker Nicolas Anelka, for $275,000 a week. A few weeks later they appointed a new coach, Sergio Batista, who led the Argentinean national team at the 2011 Copa America.

Zhou Jun, chairman of Shanghai Shenhua, and Didier Drogba hold up a Shenhua jersey during a meeting in France. (Reuters)

The team is bankrolled by Zhu Jun, an eccentric and wealthy businessman who once forced his team’s coach to let him play for five minutes in a match against Liverpool FC. Zhu also runs The9, an online gambling company, and there are reports that Drogba will serve as the firm’s new official spokesman.

Are we falling behind?

All this begs the question: Why isn’t this growth happening in U.S.? Will China pull ahead of us in soccer, too, confirming the media narrative that we’ve become second best?

America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) operates on a strict salary cap. There’s no way it can match the salaries Chinese clubs will offer to the world’s best players. It now seems possible that Kaka and Andrea Pirlo will choose Beijing instead of Los Angeles when they leave European soccer.

But not everyone’s convinced. “I don’t think any one move by a player really says that much,” Will Kuhns, a spokesman for MLS, told LatitudeNews in an interview. “The market for players is global. Last year, MLS brought in eighty new players. Thirty of them had national team caps.”

Kuhns pointed to young imports like Freddy Montero, a Colombian who plays for the Seattle Sounders, and Javier Morales, a Argentinian now playing for Real Salt Lake, as signs of the game’s strength in America. They came to MLS as unknowns but have since blossomed into quality players, generating interest from European clubs.

Drawing a contrast with China’s instability, Kuhns continued: “This league is established and permanent. We have infrastructure, stadiums, a growing fan base. A lot of players enjoy the quality of life and the culture. They like our vision. They want to live here.”

Corruption rules the game

He’s certainly right that the MLS offers players a secure environment. Soccer in the U.S. is clean, peaceful and non-political compared to the game in China. Whether that will mean more to players than a fat paycheck is another question.

Either way, MLS players probably aren’t under the enormous pressure Chinese athletes face to fix matches (though that could change as the American league becomes more profitable).

In fact, as the journalist and Oxford sociologist Declan Hill writes in his book “The Fix,” many of the Asian leagues are controlled by criminal gambling syndicates whose reach extends across the entire world. Hill’s years-long investigation into Asian match-fixing rings has led him to conclude that games at the highest level of European, Champions League and even World Cup football have been fixed. You can read more about the issue here.

Additional Reporting by Yiping Yang