A shareholder dispute will likely lead to the disintegration of Shanghai Shenhua's roster, including the departure of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba.The type of bao (stuffed buns) traditional to Shanghai is xiaolongbao, steamed in bamboo baskets. Xiaolongbao have pockets of hot soup inside the dough, ready to squirt out and stain the shirts of unsuspecting and over-eager noshers.
A year into Shanghai Shenhua's dalliance with global significance, it appears that all major parties involved – Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Zhu Jun – bit off more than they could chew.
Three of China's major news sites – Sina, Sohu and 163.com – are all reporting that Anelka will forsake the $7 million left on his contract with Shenhua to escape Shanghai this January. In his year in the Chinese Super League, Anelka played 22 games, scored three goals and assisted on six others.
Less than a year after winning the UEFA Champions League will Chelsea by sheer force of will, Drogba has significant interest from Champions League-caliber teams, with Juventus linked the strongest. He scored eight goals in 11 CSL appearances. Shanghai only lost one game he played (though it drew six, more than half).
In a recent shareholder meeting, Shenhua's colorful chairman Zhu Jun threatened to jettison the club's three big earners – Anelka, Drogba and coach Sergio Batista – and move the club to another city. News trickling through from Chinese media tends to have a loose alliance with truth. The British tabloids rehashing the story hasn't helped make the situation any less murky.
Zhu has a history of dramatic gestures. The 40-something once played as a striker in a friendly against Liverpool. He sees himself as a visionary and has megalomaniac tendencies. The current dispute, which will likely place the former Chelsea striker partnership back in Europe by the spring, sprouts from an alleged agreement made in 2007, when Zhu merged his Shanghai United with Shenhua. According to the Oriental Sports Daily, Zhu's equity in Shenhua was supposed to rise from 28.5 percent to over 70 percent within two years if he invested 150 million RMB ($24 million). In the six years since, he's pumped nearly four times that amount into the club.
Ever the marketeer, Zhu has taken to increasingly public methods to express his displeasure that his slice hasn't swelled (The five other partners are unnamed state-owned entities, according to the Oriental Post). In October, the entire team refused to train as a protest over unpaid wages. They showed up in casual clothes, jogged a lap and shot some hoops. Zhu has used the futures of his stars to barter for the future of the club.
The roster is disintegrating. Australian striker Joel Griffiths already joined Alessandro Del Piero at Sydney FC. Brazilian midfielder Moises will soon follow him out of the club. Yu Ta, captain of Shenhua for 11 years, will join Shanghai Shenxin. In November, Drogba petitioned FIFA for permission to leave the club before the transfer window opens in 2013. He has a two-and-a-half year contract, but he will likely have a new club by the time the African Cup of Nations ends.
The only foreigner likely to be left on the roster come New Year will be Giovanni Moreno. Reportedly, Zhu blocked Moreno from playing one game as a form of "silent protest," so Zhu sees the Colombian playmaker as collateral as well, but the 26-year-old could still command a sizable transfer fee.
Zhu wanted attention, and he got it, but he didn't secure much else for all the millions he invested. In 2012, Shenhua finished one point better off than it had a year prior. Shanghai fell some 20 points behind champion Guangzhou Evergrande, ending up in ninth. Guangzhou also invests heavily in its playing roster, but tends to prefer mid-20s signings from South America rather than blockbuster deals of global interest.
China can probably lay claim to the most wasted soccer potential of any country in the world, and Shenhua has come to represent the blithe spending that won't help close the gap on the many smaller Asian countries outperforming it.
Anelka and Drogba will likely return to Europe. The much-traveled Anelka said that he joined Shenhua "because of Shanghai," which he listed among London, Paris and Madrid as the best cosmopolitan cities in the world. Drogba wanted to improve African-Chinese relations. Those lures were probably real. Any future destinations will be far less exotic. The quality of bao will certainly drop, too.
Shanghai offered a new frontier as well as ample remuneration, a combination no other destination can replicate.
In a sense, Anelka and Drogba shanghaied themselves. Lured by the ethereal visions of grandeur and yuan, they now cling to flotsam, drifting back across the oceans in the wake of the Shenhua shipwreck.
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