Success of Demba Ba and Mohamed Sissoko crucial for Shanghai Shenhua
How does a football club emerge from sustained chaos? While for most supporters of top European teams this is a question they never need ask, for those elsewhere it is one which emerges with astonishing frequency. A change of owner, president or general manager is often greeted with promises of hope and progress, but invariably little changes until there is meaningful reform at all levels -- and even then success is far from guaranteed.
For traditional Chinese powerhouse Shanghai Shenhua, it remains an ongoing predicament.
Shenhua made headlines worldwide this week with their captures of former Premier League stars Demba Ba and Mohamed Sissoko -- both excellent players in their own right, albeit at 30 years of age, respectively. Given the expense involved, with Ba reported to have cost in the region of €14 million in addition to his €6 million per year net wages, they are signings that carry significant expectation of on-pitch results.
With Shenhua, though, we have been here before.
It is after all just three years since the club made headlines with their capture of both Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba in the space of just six months from Chelsea. Under previous owner Zhu Jun -- a computer game mogul with a penchant for playing himself in the club's marquee friendly fixtures -- Shenhua were determined to gain international recognition and, for a short while, did just that. They are still perhaps Chinese football's most famous name internationally as a result.
However, the manner of Drogba's departure just months after arriving caused the club great damage. Having gone unpaid on reported €300,000 per week wages, the Ivorian was awarded a settlement by FIFA shortly after walking out to join Galatasaray. The club's reputation was sullied and their marquee signings were gone. Admittedly, Anelka's largely forgettable spell at the club ended in far less dramatic fashion.
Times have changed on the east coast, though, with Zhu having sold the club to real estate giants Greenland in early 2014. The richest club in the league -- or so the headlines read -- they were expected to quickly put in place the foundations of a brighter future. Yet, despite their sure financial footing, Shenhua have thus far remained a club mired in off-pitch controversy.
From having to deal with the departing owner selling their two best Chinese talents to fighting with their own fans over a desire to change the club's name, Greenland have not found life at the Hongkou Stadium easy. Even when the outlook looked brighter at the beginning of the 2015 season, with the club topping the league in the early weeks of the campaign, Shenhua have managed to revert to type on and off the pitch.
In their latest act, the club's long-serving general manager, Zhou Jun, was forced to deny making transfers based on illegal payments after an anonymous forum post online made a series of acute and detailed accusations. As a club, they have lurched between comedy and tragedy with alarming regularity.
With their season in a mess and the team dropping down the table, Greenland have acted swiftly in an attempt to resurrect what looks set to be another highly disappointing campaign. Having begun the season with a plethora of attacking midfielders, yet lacking even a single defensive midfielder of note, Sissoko's addition was probably six months overdue.
Ba, on the other hand, is a true marquee signing brought in to replace another, with Australia's Tim Cahill likely to make way after a mediocre six-month spell in China. In a league where foreign forwards are often expected to create their own chances given a lack of reliable service, the former Evertonian was often found wanting -- with his natural game reliant on others providing chances. On that basis, Ba's pace and technical ability should provide better support to top-scorer Paulo Henrique -- himself signed last year for €4 million from Trabzonspor.
No club has been treated to as many marquee signings as Shenhua in recent years, but there is a feeling that these latest deals are finally fulfilling footballing needs rather than simply drawing publicity.
"Ba and Sissoko's signing now is different to when Drogba and Anelka joined," said well-known Southern Metropolis Daily reporter Feng Zhen to ESPN FC. "In the Zhu Jun era, signings were made simply to build hype around the club, but they are finally starting to address needs.
"As long as Greenland continue to invest big money, they will surely become strong challengers in time. The city of Shanghai is very attractive to many players. As long as they put up the money they will find people willing to play for Shenhua.
"To really compete with Guangzhou Evergrande or Beijing Guoan, though, they will need to massively boost the depth of talent in their Chinese squad. That Shenhua are feeling the need to spend in the manner of Evergrande mid-season shows how far behind they've fallen."
Long-term Shenhua supporter Cameron Wilson, founder of the Wild East Football website, agrees, adding: "The transfer policy is questionable. Spending €14 million on one player right now doesn't make a lot of sense.
"At present, Shenhua don't even have one current Chinese international in their squad. In a league where seven Chinese players must be on the pitch at any one time, that's a severe handicap."
Shanghai Shenhua's ability to continue reforming this season is currently limited, with their five-man Chinese player registration quota already filled for the 2015 season. For next season, having amassed a foreign player collection which ranks among the best in Asia, recruiting greater domestic talent must be the priority. However, with genuine Chinese talent in short supply and monied competitors increasingly plentiful, it is easier said than done.
The natural expectation among those who don't follow the CSL closely will be that the newly-reinforced Shenhua will rise up the league quickly. However, their supporters' scepticism is understandable. Shenhua are competing with sides who have similar quality in their overseas player ranks as well as a monopoly on local talent. It is a status quo which will be difficult to break.
The aim of all clubs in China following major investment is to repeat the success of four-time league champions Guangzhou Evergrande over recent years. However, what in part has made the Cantonese side so successful is their clear chain of command regarding their transfer policy. Generally speaking, the club has handled recruitment of Chinese players while the manager has been given authority regarding foreign additions.
While it has not always worked -- as in the case of Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Diamanti -- their recruitment of South Americans been largely successful. With their Brazilian contingent sharing a universal language and culture, off-pitch issues have been minimal as the club moves from success to success.
"Life in China is not always easy for foreign players, especially once the initial boost of playing against weaker opposition wears off. Shenhua have done well to secure two players of similar backgrounds who can help each other through tough times ahead," Wilson notes. With manager Francis Gillot also French-speaking and Zambian defender Stoppila Sunzu having joined from Ligue 1 side Sochaux, the club are seemingly beginning to move in a unified direction.
There is still an outside chance for Shenhua to qualify for next season's AFC Champions League courtesy of the CFA Cup, but this season must now be about laying a platform for the future rather than unrealistic expectations of immediate success. Chronic short-termism has been the club's biggest issue for several years and they need to learn from those mistakes.
Shenhua have some of the best supporters in China, fans who have stuck with the club through thick and thin over recent years. They deserve better for their loyalty and even the capture of Demba Ba can only, at best, be seen as the beginning of a process that will require gentle evolution and stability as much as off-pitch reform. It is a tough balance.
As Chinese football grows, Shanghai needs its most traditional team to return to the top of the game. In a league lacking deep-rooted football culture, Shenhua bring much to the table in that regard. The challenge now is to bring their football up to a level befitting of their status. Ba and Sissoko could potentially become icons if they help change the club's course, but they must first succeed where others have tried and failed.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.