|Anelka is exchanging life at one of the biggest clubs in Europe for a challenge in the Chinese League [GALLO/GETTY]|
Paul Gascoigne lasted four months, Shane Smeltz went home after just five days. So how much of Nicolas Anelka’s two-year contract with Shanghai Shenhua will the former French international actually serve?
The Chelsea striker will become the Chinese Super League’s biggest ever signing when he joins the club next month, earning a reported $300,000 per week.
But, as history has shown, big-name foreign imports don’t always easily adapt to life in China.
In 2003, former England international Paul Gascoigne signed a nine-month contract with Gansu Tianma, but left Lanzhou in Gansu province before the halfway point, having played just four matches.
After scoring for New Zealand in the 2010 World Cup, Smeltz secured a lucrative two-year deal with Shandong Luneng Taishan. But the two-time A-League Golden Boot winner flew back to his base on Australia’s Gold Coast within a week, reportedly because of concerns about how his young family would adapt to life in Jinan.
During his 15-year professional career, Anelka has been somewhat nomadic, playing for nine clubs in four countries while making almost 500 league appearances. But the move to Shanghai is likely to provide him considerable challenges, on and off the field.
Shanghai Shenhua are coming off a disappointing 2011 season in which they finished 11th in the 16-team league with only 11 victories in 30 matches. Their average crowd was the fourth-lowest in the CSL even though Shanghai is the largest city in terms of population in China.
“Even at 32, Anelka is still a great striker but he is not superman,” said Bojan Hodak, assistant coach at Shandong Luneng to Rajko Magic.
“His game will depend a lot on his teammates because he’s not the kind of player who can beat five players on his own and score a goal.
|England’s Paul Gascoigne did not last long in the Chinese league [EPA]|
“It is important for him to understand that the players around him are not tactically at the same level as Chelsea so he may feel frustrated when he makes a run and his teammates can’t pass with the same quality as in Europe.”
As for his life outside of football, Anelka has chosen the right city, according to Hodak, who is based in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in eastern China where Smeltz had such a short stay in 2010.
“The fact that Shanghai is such an international city with so many foreigners will make things easier for Anelka,” said Croatian-born Hodak, who also dabbles as a TV and radio pundit on the English Premier League.
“In Shanghai, he won’t have the problems that some overseas players have with food because he will be eating at 5-star hotels, even for away games,” he said.
But Hodak added that daily life on the training pitch and the club’s medical practices may require some adjustments for the former Paris St Germain and Real Madrid forward.
“Training is a lot more relaxed here at some clubs compared to Europe and many players won’t go 100% to save themselves for matches,” he said.
“One of the biggest problems is the medical teams here which means that foreign players will still look for treatment in Europe. So I hope that Anelka won’t have any serious injuries.”
One former Premier League player who has a very good impression of Chinese soccer is former West Ham and Aston Villa hit-man Marlon Harewood, who scored four goals in 10 appearances in 2011 to help Guangzhou R&F earn promotion to the CSL.
On returning to the UK, Harewood described his experience in China as “great”, saying that he would recommend it to his fellow professionals. The 32-year-old, who is considering a return to Guangzhou R&F for the 2012 season, has been training in the meantime with former club Nottingham Forest in England’s second tier.
“The cameras will follow Anelka’s every move and he’ll definitely attract a few more thousand fans every game”
Bojan Hodak, assistant coach at Shandong Luneng
Anelka, a multiple-winner of major trophies including the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League who earned 69 international caps, is obviously at a much higher level than journeyman Harewood. So the scrutiny of his performances, and the accompanying pressure, will be far greater.
Shanghai Shenhua’s average crowd in the 2011 season was just 9,828. But with talk of Didier Drogba and manager Jean Tigana forming a French-speaking clique at the Blue Devils, there’s likely to be an explosion of interest.
“The cameras will follow Anelka’s every move and he’ll definitely attract a few more thousand fans every game,” Hodak said.
“At Shandong Luneng, when we signed China international Hao Junmin from Schalke and Brazilian defender Fabiano from Lecce in the mid-season break, our home crowd doubled for the next match to more than 30,000 people.”
So Anelka is about to enter a totally different dimension. He’s played at Stamford Bridge, the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the Parc des Princes and Anfield, but nothing can properly prepare the man once nicknamed ‘le Sulk’ for Shanghai’s Hongkou Stadium.
While he’s bound to last longer than Paul Gascoigne and Shane Smeltz did, it certainly won’t be easy.
* Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever – the world’s first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey
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