BEIJING - Didier Drogba arrives in China this weekend amid a spending spree on foreign talent that football chiefs hope will give the local league a much-needed boost but critics say is ruining the sport.
The former Chelsea striker will join his new team, Shanghai Shenhua, on Saturday, making him the highest-profile overseas player in the Chinese Super League as it tries to rebuild after years of corruption and scandal.
He will join the likes of French striker Nicholas Anelka, Nigerian Ayegbeni Yakubu and World Cup winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi on mega-contracts in China, with those deals funded mostly by local business titans.
Drogba and Anelka will play together at Shenhua, with each reported to be on salaries of more than $15 million a year – roughly double the amount they received in the English Premier League.
The Chinese Football Association believes the domestic game, which has endured years of corruption and repeated failures by the national team, is set to take off on the back of the influx of expensive foreign talent.
“The high-level world-class players and coaches will be able to provide a learning opportunity to our domestic players and coaches,” CFA spokesman Dong Hua told AFP.
“I hope our coaches and players can improve through this exchange and enhance the level of Chinese football as a whole.”
But football analysts and players with experience in both the Chinese and English leagues say the big spending amounts to little more than the vanity projects of club owners who should instead be pouring cash into grassroots development.
“The spending is ego-fuelled craziness coming from these big owners, which is not sustainable and will end in disaster in the long run,” Rowan Simons, a prominent Beijing-based commentator on Chinese football, told AFP.
“The level of investment required to bring Drogba and Anelka is totally out of sync with the scale of football.
“When a single player’s salary is several times the entire revenue of the club in a year, I think it is fairly obvious that we have gone the wrong way in one direction.”
Concerns from football purists also centre on the star signings being drafted in to promote the commercial interests of the mega-rich Chinese club owners.
State media have reported that part of Drogba’s deal includes him being a spokesman for a Chinese online gaming company.
Anelka was reportedly paid millions to endorse an online game developed by Internet company The9, whose chairman Zhu Jun is also the chief investor in Shenhua.
Guangzhou Evergrande, who currently top the CSL, are owned by Evergrande Real Estate Group, which is controlled by tycoon Xu Jiayin.
Xu, one of China’s richest me, reportedly has a fortune of $7.2 billion and a war chest of $70 million for his club.
Part of that was spent on luring Lippi for an annual salary of $12.66 million, according to Chinese Internet portal Sohu.com.
“These are not investments in football for football’s sake... and it is definitely not sustainable,” Yan Qiang, football commentator and vice-president of Titan Media, one of China’s leading sports publishers, told AFP.
“Some of these owners are investing like they are carrying out some sort of personal public relations exercise, while others are doing it to increase the awareness of their own companies.”
Another former English Premier League star, Marlon Harewood, was credited with helping Guangzhou R&F, the second team from the booming southern Chinese city, rise into the top division last season during a short-term contract.
The former Aston Villa and West Ham United striker said that club owners were ploughing cash into the wrong areas of the game.
“They need to invest in grass roots players who are homegrown as the gap is huge between local players and the ones taken in from overseas,” Harewood told AFP.
The quality of Chinese players has been under intense scrutiny in recent years, with China already out of the running for the 2014 World Cup after it failed to get through a qualifying group topped by Iraq.
The failure to qualify came despite the CFA luring ex-Real Madrid and Spain boss Jose Antonio Camacho as manager on a reported $8 million-a-year contract.
The national team has only qualified for one World Cup, in 2002, when it lost all three games and failed to score a single goal.