By Cameron Wilson
What a mess Shanghai Shenhua now find themselves in. After their astounding capture of Nicolas Anelka during the close season, the club was expected to be in the thick of the 2012 Chinese Super League title race right from the off. Instead they are now third bottom of the league and new manager Jean Tigana appears to have been fired after just one win in six games.
Confusion rules at the moment with Anelka apparently becoming the caretaker manager, and the club set to announce a new head coach on Tuesday, possibly former D.R. Congo national team boss Florent Ibenge. Former coach Wu Jingui, a fan favourite who led Shenhua to their last title in 2003, is also in the running.
Bizarre and chaotic scenes enveloped Hongkou Stadium last week when three French assistant coaches brought to the club by Tigana were fired by the board, due to player discontent. But the club announced Tigana had not resigned or been fired, even as contrary signs started to appear such as veteran midfielder Jiang Kun openly criticising his boss on the eve of Shenhua’s league game against Tianjin Teda.
Then later that same day, the press corps were treated to the odd, and slightly amusing spectacle of the introverted Anelka holding court during a press conference at Shenhua’s training base. Tigana was strangely absent, his place taken by a bespectacled Anelka who sat in front of bemused reporters timidly explaining through an interpreter of his promotion to the coaching team, and that he was unaware of Tigana’s whereabouts.
|It's official. I just become [sic] player-manager of Shanghai Shenhua
- Anelka on Twitter last Thursday
Later that night, the situation became even more ridiculous when the former Chelsea man abruptly announced on his official Twitter account that: “I just become [sic] player-manager of Shanghai Shenhua.” Football fans around the world were stunned by the tweet - as even casual fans are well aware, Anelka simply isn’t football manager material. But at Shenhua, it seemed such an absurdity just might be possible, given the club’s eccentric 40-something owner, Zhu Jun, who once named himself in the starting line-up in a pre-season friendly against Liverpool.
The fantasy reached its height at Hongkou Stadium on Friday night, with the utterly bizarre sight of a deserted home dugout. Was Anelka in charge? No one seemed to know, and Shenhua lost 1-0 to Tianjin Teda - a side who had never won in Shanghai before in the 18-year history of the Chinese league. Later it would transpire that Tigana had travelled to the ground on the squad bus but left before the game even kicked-off, reportedly hailing a taxi, in what could only be described as a very strange evening for all concerned.
Anelka seems to have the full respect of his team-mates, and was besieged by autograph-hunting fans after last Friday’s match despite the result. In the eyes of this correspondent, Tigana has rightly been made the fall guy. In his first moments in Shanghai he was mobbed by
exuberant fans at the airport, but looked ill-at-ease and ended up running away from the arrival gate shenanigans, chased by the Chinese paparazzi. A fan interviewed by the club’s online TV channel said his first impression of Tigana was “he’s alright, he seems like a person
who doesn’t love to talk,” - a polite way saying he had been rude. Players also complained of his uncommunicative nature during training sessions, his ineffective tactics and of playing them out of position.
|Tigana has rightly been made the fall guy. In his first moments in Shanghai he was mobbed by exuberant fans at the airport, but looked ill-at-ease and ended up running away from the arrival gate shenanigans|
By contrast, Anelka’s arrival in his new country has been nothing short of a PR masterclass, patiently signing as many autographs as possible, starting to learn the language and charming the Chinese with his apparent shyness and modesty. This is why criticism of Anelka has largely been absent - the belief is that the problems at the club are not of his making. Indeed Shenhua’s opening five games could not have been harder, including two local derbies and matches against Beijing and reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
It’s not too late for Shenhua to turn things around, but they face an uphill battle. Zhu Jun’s attention-seeking mutterings on the Chinese Twitter equivalent Weibo are becoming increasingly tiresome, and his behaviour is likely to hinder any efforts to stabilise the club going
forward. The appointment of Wu Jingui would help put the club back on much needed solid ground.
Cameron Wilson is the founding editor of Wild East Football, the internet’s only English language website dedicated to Chinese football.