Drogba is already the most high-profile player to join an Asian team. His own determination will decide if his star wattage translates to on-field success.For developing leagues, there are, essentially, two types of marquee signings.
The first is concerned primarily with marketing. Big money goes toward big names who carry clout in big leagues, or to players with suction in an otherwise uninterested potential audience.
The second worries only about on-field ability, press be damned. In Major League Soccer, the Seattle Sounders, already setting records for North American attendance, tend to promote proven squad members to Designated Player contracts (Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales). In China, Guangzhou Evergrande built a competitive team by spending huge sums on South Americans with little to no profile in Europe, including Dario Conca, until recently the third-best compensated player in the world.
Of course, occasionally players span the continuum, bolstering both faculty and finances. David Beckham, the most recognizable player in MLS history, won a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double last season. Cuauhtemoc Blanco led the Chicago Fire to three consecutive conference finals in addition to helping MLS tap into the hefty Hispanic market.
So where will Didier Drogba, who joined Shanghai Shenhua this week, fit?
Drogba certainly has the pedigree. The Ivory Coast striker scored 157 goals in 341 appearances for Chelsea after joining for 24 million pounds in 2004. He'll link up with Nicolas Anelka, his former strike partner with the Blues. The two combined for 40 Premier League goals as recently as 2009-10.
But the two-and-a-half-year contract may not yield as much as its $16 million annual payout might suggest. Imported stars in developing leagues often struggle more than the quality of play would indicate.
The Chinese Super League lags drastically behind the J-League, K-League and even MLS in quality. (Even though, according to documents released by the CSL recently, the average CSL team pays a nick under $10 million in annual player salaries, roughly double what MLS shells out.)
Drogba tends to excel on the grandest of stages. Think of his equalizing goal in the Champions League final, neck bristling with equine power, eyes flaring with desire. He willed home nine goals in nine finals for Chelsea; he scored a meek five league goals total last season. Will China offer enough to motivate the 34-year-old, or will it see the exasperating, flopping version with more regularity?
"Even if Drogba comes, there will still be issues. There are a lot of problems with Shenhua's tactics at the moment," Anelka said. "Soccer is a game of 11 players. You can't change things with just one or two players.
"In my opinion, the most important area in soccer is the midfield. If Drogba comes and no one can pass to him, then that is no use."
Shenhua is trying to address that as well. Racing Club's Colombian playmaker Giovanni Moreno will join shortly. "Moreno has great personal experience and technique. If he comes, it is just what we need," Sergio Batista said.
Batista is the third coach of Shanghai this season, after former Fulham boss Jean Tigana and Anelka (as player-coach). The team lost Batista's first game in charge, dropping to 12th in the 16-team league.
That's nowhere near good enough for a team that accounts for 17 percent of the league's total salary expenditure even before Drogba's wages are calculated in.
Shenhua has come to represent a growing problem in the Chinese game: an over-reliance on imported players to stay competitive as opposed to investment in a healthy local infrastructure. The average foreign player earns RMB 5.49 million ($863,000) a year; the average domestic player picks up RMB 1.57 million ($246,000). It's no coincidence that China hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 2002.
As Drogba starts learning to call the local currency kwai (loosely translates as 'bucks'), the disparity between imported and homegrown players will widen. Guangzhou recently crammed legislation through which allows for seven foreign players on the roster for clubs participating in the Asian Champions League. (Game-day rosters will still feature five foreigners max, only four of which can be on the field at once, and one of those must come from Asia.)
Drogba won't fix any of the major problems with soccer in China. But that's not really his job. His job is to score goals and help win matches. Will he do that?
Owner Zhu Jun is betting $16 million a year that he will. Anelka seems to have his reservations. It's hard to extrapolate too much of Batista's thinking from his canned quotes.
Eventually, the motivation Drogba can muster in a sub-par league on mushy fields tucked away from the spotlight will determine the answer.
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