China signed Ivorian superstar Didier Drogba in hopes of lifting domestic game

Shanghai Shenhua’s Didier Drogba reacts as he holds the ball during their soccer match against Liaoning Whowin at Hongkou Football Stadium Saturday Sept. 15, 2012 in Shanghai, China. The futures of Drogba and Nicolas Anelka at Shanghai Shenhua could hinge on a boardroom battle that is threatening to boil over, according to Chinese media

Staff and wire reports

Published: 25 September 2012 10:42 PM

Chinese soccer has been in desperate need of a savior. It wound up with the “Devil Beast.”

That’s the nickname awestruck Chinese have hung on Didier Drogba, the powerful 34-year-old striker from the Ivory Coast who months after lifting the Champions League trophy made a surprising move to one of global soccer’s backwaters.

Drogba has been a sensation at Shanghai Shenhua FC since joining the club in July, two months after helping lead Chelsea to its first European title. He scored his team-high sixth goal over the weekend, having appeared in only seven of 25 league games following his midseason arrival, and has helped attract crowds of nearly 25,000 for a team that averaged 15,000 fans per game a year ago. Shenhua, in the midst of a disappointing season, has gone unbeaten (2-0-5) in Chinese Super League play with Drogba in the lineup and has inched up to eighth place with five games to play.

Other big-name players have moved to China in recent years — including Nicolas Anelka, who played alongside Drogba at Chelsea and is with him again at Shenhua — but none has matched the instant impact of “Shenhua’s nuclear bomb,” as goalkeeper Wang Dalei called his new teammate.

How much Drogba, or any one player, can help Chinese soccer has been widely debated in the country.

The sport in China has been sullied by corruption, stifled by government bureaucracy and embarrassed by the failures of the national team, which FIFA ranks 78th in the world, just behind Haiti. China has played in only one World Cup — in 2002, when it lost all three of its games and failed to score — and already has been knocked out of contention for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Two weeks ago, the Brazilians added to China’s humiliation with an 8-0 spanking in a friendly.

Allegations of match-fixing in China go back at least to 2001, though it was only in 2009 that the government began to crack down.

In February, the former deputy head of China’s soccer association and nearly 50 others were sentenced for up to 12 years for crimes that included bribery, gambling, embezzlement and other offenses related to match-fixing. The convicted included a former World Cup referee, three other refs, a former head of the nation’s referees’ committee, and former presidents or head coaches for five clubs.

“Ants are too small to look up and see the trees above them,” said David Yang, a Sports Illustrated China commentator, repeating an ancient Chinese proverb. “Drogba is like an ant. Even if he wants to help make the league cleaner, he can’t even see the corrupt trees that grow around him.”

As gamblers ruined the game for average fans, soccer’s grass roots continued to wither. Except for the most promising kids, who are hustled off to sports academies when they’re as young as 6 years old, many students are expressly forbidden from taking up the sport for fear it will interfere with their studies.

Reportedly, fewer than 10,000 junior players are registered in China compared with more than 300,000 in Japan, a nation of less than a tenth of its population.

“You can’t build a house from the top,” said Arie Haan, a former Dutch international and one-time Chinese national team coach. “What China is doing now is what America did in the ’70s; they built from the top. A lot of famous players came to America — Franz Beckenbauer, Pele — but what did they help?”

Chen Ze, a youth soccer coach, was quoted in the state-run China Daily as saying that 1 million yuan — about $158,000 — “would help fulfill the soccer dreams of 50 boys a year, but it is really a huge number for us.” Drogba reportedly is making $300,000-plus a week.

Upon his arrival, Drogba assured that he made the move not for the money but “to win matches and be the champion.” His convictions have been tested following recent reports that a shareholder dispute had threatened Shenhua’s finances, jeopardizing the club’s pact with the “Devil Beast.”

Drogba, however, told the BBC that he continues to be paid and intends to see out his 21/2-year contract. “I’m really happy here, so I have no reasons to leave,” he said. “It’s difficult at the moment, but I know that there’s hope and I believe.”

Euro 2020 may be held on Pan-European stage

UEFA president Michel Platini has held talks with English soccer officials about staging key 2020 European Championship matches at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Platini has proposed scattering matches across as many as 12 European countries, rather than selecting a single host nation in 2020.

At talks in London last week, Platini discussed the prospect of using Wembley for the Euro 2020 semifinals and final with English Football Association chairman David Bernstein, a person familiar with the situation said Monday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Platini came up with the radical plan for Euro 2020 after Turkey emerged as the only formal bidder. But if Istanbul’s 2020 Olympics bid wins next September, Turkey won’t be allowed to stage the Euros in the same year.

Fiscal discipline sought by England’s top flight

Two years after Portsmouth became England’s first top-flight team to seek bankruptcy protection, the Premier League will try to formulate rules this week to control spending and prevent teams from financial collapse.

High on the agenda is whether to adopt UEFA’s financial fair play rules, which require clubs to break even to play in European competition. Teams who do not play by UEFA’s rules will not be allowed entry to the Champions League or Europa League.

Premier League clubs will also consider the merits of determining a maximum percentage of a club’s income that can be spent on players’ salaries.

Briefly …

Coroner’s ruling: Columbus Crew midfielder Kirk Urso, who was 22, died of a genetic defect of the heart and the death was considered natural, Franklin County (Ohio) coroner Jan Gorniak said Friday.

Racial abuse alleged: UEFA has opened disciplinary proceedings against Lazio after fans of the Roman club reportedly directed racial abuse at Tottenham players during their Europa League match Thursday. The British media said monkey chants were directed at Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend during the 0-0 draw. On Friday, Bulgaria’s Levski Sofia said it has been fined $39,000 by UEFA for racist abuse by its fans at a Europa League match against Sarajevo in July.

Ethical debate: Millonarios are considering forfeiting the Colombian league titles  it won in 1987 and ‘88 when the Bogata club was controlled by drug traffickers. “This is a debate about ethics,” club president Felipe Gaitan said Tuesday on Caracol Radio from Madrid, where Millonarios play Real Madrid in a friendly Wednesday honoring Alfredo Di Stefano, a legendary player for both clubs.

Vidic out: Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic will be sidelined for about two months following right knee surgery. The Serbian defender missed the final five months of last season after rupturing a cruciate ligament, and the same knee required meniscus surgery, United said Tuesday.

The week past

MLS: San Jose 2, at Seattle 1 — Chris Wondolowski keeps on scoring goals and keeps on winning games. On Saturday, the prohibitive MVP favorite tapped home his MLS-leading 22nd goal of the season and his league-record 10th game-winner for the Earthquakes, who have the league’s best record at 18-6-6 (60 points) as they prepare to host FC Dallas this Saturday.

German Bundesliga: at Hoffenheim 3, Hannover 1 — Americans Fabian Johnson and Daniel Williams scored for Hoffenheim, which secured its first points of the season Sunday and escaped the league basement.

French Ligue 1: Paris Saint-Germain 4, at Bastia 0 — After a slow start, big-spending PSG is back in league-favorite form. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the club’s standout off-season acquisition, had two goals in Saturday’s win four days after scoring in PSG’s 4-1 rout of Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League. He has seven goals in five league matches since arriving from AC Milan, where he led Italy’s Serie A last season with 28 goals.

The week ahead

Italian Serie A: Cagliari at AC Milan (Wednesday) — It’s been a rough week for both clubs. On Monday, the league awarded Roma a 3-0 victory over Cagliari after local authorities called off their game Sunday. Massimo Cellino, president of the Sardinian club, had defied orders to bar spectators from Cagliari’s new Is Arenas, which has yet to pass security tests. On Tuesday, Cagliari announced that Cellino has suspended himself in order “to defend himself freely in any appropriate place.” Meanwhile, the league has banned AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri for one match for insulting the referee at the end of Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Udinese. The loss dropped Milan to 1-3-0 in Serie A.

English Premier League: Chelsea at Arsenal (Saturday) — Chelsea without Didier Drogba is still winning. So is Arsenal without Robin van Persie. Both clubs are unbeaten through five games, with Arsenal preserving its zero in the loss column on Laurent Koscielny’s 82nd-minute goal Sunday at Manchester City. Only one other club has taken points at City’s Etihad Stadium in the 22 league matches there since the start of last season: Sunderland, with a 3-3 draw in March.

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