Political goals may be behind Zhu Jun's big-money signings
The piles of money being offered to European-based soccer stars by Chinese football clubs is old news, but there is more at play than what happens on the pitch.
Many football fans imagine billionaire Chinese bosses waving multimillion-dollar cheques at world-class players, offering them big contracts that can't be resisted. Shanghai Shenhua owner Zhu Jun has led the way in signing former Chelsea strikers Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba.
The contracts offered to the two stars were reportedly worth a combined US$70 million - probably more than 46-year-old Zhu's personal net worth. His share of the Nasdaq-listed online game company he founded, The9, is now valued at less than US$40 million.
Two people close to Zhu say he has admitted putting his fortune at stake by signing the two foreign strikers. He even told one of the sources that he could no longer afford to buy luxury goods.
Since football clubs on the mainland are unable to generate profits, the Shanghai native faces a serious risk of ending up penniless. Zhu, a die-hard soccer fan, told the Financial Times recently that free-spending Shenhua wanted to prove it could do everything.
He was caught in the eye of the storm in mid-2010 when he announced his ambition to acquire English Premier League powerhouse Liverpool via a leveraged buyout deal. He was viewed as something of a joke because no one believed he was strong enough financially to seal a Reds buyout worth about ?00 million (HK$9.65 billion).
Zhu has said he wants to make Chinese people happy by signing big-name players and he also hopes to live up to the promise he made in 2007, when taking over Shenhua, that it would win the Chinese Super League. Shenhua are now close to the relegation zone of the domestic top flight, sitting 12th in the 16-team league. They are 17 points adrift of front runners Guangzhou Evergrande after 14 matches.
Sources say Zhu 'would die for football'. He likes to assume the coach's role before matches, working out the line-up and tactics, and has taken to the pitch in a Shenhua jersey in two international friendlies. However, people close to Zhu insist he is not crazy. They say he is a smart businessman and one of the few mainland entrepreneurs who know how to play by international rules.
Zhu is betting that Drogba and Anelka will give a huge boost to the popularity of The9's new team-based shooter game Firefall by acting as its spokesmen. His moves have proved popular with fans across the nation, who have hailed Zhu as a white knight riding to the rescue of Chinese soccer in the wake of corruption scandals and a woeful international record. But analysts doubt the ex-Chelsea stars will be able to bring in enough income to match their contracts.
Perhaps more importantly, Zhu's moves are aimed at regaining the sport's political influence after a series of match-fixing and corruption scandals resulted in a crisis of confidence in Chinese football.
Professor Simon Chadwick, a sports business and marketing specialist at Coventry University, pointed out recently that the purchase of top players from European leagues was not only driven by commercial or sporting factors. A revival of Chinese football will also make politicians look good, he said.
When Guangzhou Evergrande, backed by Hong Kong-listed developer Evergrande Real Estate Group, progressed to the last eight of the AFC Champions League after edging Japanese outfit FC Tokyo on May 30, millions of mainland fans relished the victory and hailed the team as a source of national pride.
Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be the become head of the Communist Party this autumn, is said to have voiced strong support for football, hoping that the sport's profile can be raised to match the nation's increasing economic might.
Sources say Zhu has connections with the top leadership and could seek government aid to salvage the club and his business. And that, of course, is the biggest game of all.