Didier Drogba timing sweet for Chinese football

Didier Drogba timing sweet for Chinese football

BEIJING - Agence France-Presse
Didier Drogba timing sweet for Chinese football

This file photo shows striker Didier Drogba carrying the Olympic Flame on May 23. AP photo

Didier Drogba’s signing is sweetly timed as China looks to turn the page on its legendary corruption - but it’s also sparked heated debate over a new wave of foreign players.

Just a week before Drogba’s move to Shanghai Shenhua was announced on Wednesday, a final batch of officials and players received lengthy jail terms over the bribery and match-fixing which had plunged the sport into disarray.

Until recently, Chinese football was notorious for its “black whistle” cheating by referees and frequent, related outbursts of crowd violence, plus the repeated failures of its national team.

Now the Chinese Super League (CSL) is now becoming known for its top-dollar acquisitions like Drogba, fellow Shenhua recruit Nicolas Anelka and Guangzhou Evergrande’s World Cup-winning coach, Marcello Lippi. Shenhua, already the home of French striker Nicolas Anelka, will reportedly pay 200,000 pounds ($314,000) a week to Drogba, who is fresh from leading Chelsea to its long-awaited victory in the Champions League.

The Ivory Coast forward, 34, revealed his move on the same day that clubs voted to hike their number of foreign players to seven from five, if they are playing in the AFC Champions League continental competition.

The change appears aimed at helping Lippi’s Evergrande, who are the only Chinese team left in the tournament and are spearheaded by imported South American talent, including recent signing Lucas Barrios.

But the emphasis on foreign players has unsettled some commentators, who say paying big money for top stars is unsustainable and will not help develop Chinese players.

“Chinese soccer is facing a serious polarization. The rich become richer while the poor become poorer,” former Chinese international Li Weifeng told the China Daily.

“Fans are happy that the Chinese league will finally have world-class players and coaches, but will there be more if these people leave one day?”

Zhang Lu, a keeper with Liaoning Whowin, said foreign players could help their Chinese teammates. But he also expressed reservations.

“Of course more fans will be attracted. But does that mean that the CSL is a game for the rich?” he said, according to the newspaper.

Meanwhile some clubs criticized the mid-season move to raise the quota for foreign players, accusing Evergrande of “influencing” the vote.

“How can it (the rule) be changed in the middle of the season?” Beijing Guoan general manager Gao Chao said, as reported by the China Daily. His club has already been eliminated from the AFC Champions League.

The debate may intensify when China, already out of the running for the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympics, embarks on qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has also spent big on its national team, hiring ex-Real Madrid and Spain boss Jose Antonio Camacho as manager, in a bid to improve China’s dismal record in international competition.

China has only ever reached one World Cup, in 2002, where it lost all three matches and failed to score a goal.

In September, Evergrande will chase regional glory when they become the first Chinese team in six years to play an AFC Champions League quarter-final, against two-time winners Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia.