What’s next for Chinese football?

Here’s my weekly Sports Talk column from the Global Times, entitled “Star exits don’t matter in bigger picture”

With all the negative headlines surrounding the recent departures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, it is important to keep some perspective about where this leaves Chinese soccer.

Was it disappointing? Yes, but their exits came as no surprise. The pair had long been rumored to be on their way out, and they are hardly the first foreign players to have left before fulfilling their contracts.

It is far more embarrassing, though, for the club and its flamboyant owner, Zhu Jun, an Internet entrepreneur whose ambitions appear to have wildly outsized his bank balance.

In October, the entire Shenhua team turned up late for training wearing casual clothes in protest over unpaid wages. It’s clear that there were financial problems almost as soon as Drogba had signed with the club.

Zhu Jun’s conduct, and the club’s ongoing attempts to block Drogba from playing for Turkish club Galatasaray, is also damaging the image of Chinese soccer overseas, according to Cameron Wilson, founding editor of Chinese soccer website Wild East Football.

But Wilson remains optimistic. The league, he said, has overcome far bigger difficulties than two superstar foreign players leaving before their contracts were finished.

Anelka described his year in China as a “great experience,” saying that he leaves with some fond memories – a notion that will sound strange to the club’s fans, who quickly grew disillusioned with his notorious indifference, and a strike rate of less than one goal every seven games. Drogba’s determination to improve those around him was a welcome addition to the league, but Anelka will not be missed.

When compared with Chinese soccer’s match-fixing problems, which blighted the league for years and finally resulted in players, referees and officials going to prison last year, this latest drama barely registers on the radar.

One or two star players cannot change a sport on their own. Of far greater importance is whether the latest grassroots initiatives will ever have an effect large enough to transform the national team, which last week lost to Oman – not even the most embarrassing loss in recent memory.

The support is there, as evidenced by passionate fanbases up and down the country, but the system has been rotten for years. If the root causes have now finally been treated, hopefully some green shoots can begin to sprout.

From here, with my picture in colour =)

Unfortunately, though, just as Chinese soccer appears to be getting its act together and moving on from match-fixing, the rest of the world is following suit.

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