Didier could be China's 'Drog-god'
The ball sat on the penalty spot at Tokyo National Stadium waiting for the boot of Kazuyoshi Miura. It, and the 60,000 fans witnessing the J-League's first ever championship play-off final in January 1994, was in for quite a shock. Zico walked up, bent down and, furious at the decision which would give Verdy Kawasaki the title instead of his own Kashima Antlers, spat on the stationary sphere.
The Brazilian was sent off for his actions but it didn't stop there. "It was if he had spat at the J-League itself," said league chairman Saburo Kawabuchi but the White Pele was no mercenary on the take. His passion, professionalism and, yes, even his phlegm, helped to change Japanese football for good.
Zico's pride and high standards as a player were infectious. If those Japanese pioneers of professionalism didn't catch it just by being around him, they received a direct dose. He stayed up with players the night before games to make sure there was no drinking, he shouted at the sight of muddy boots, insisted on time spent with fans to sign autographs, despaired of anyone caught laughing after a defeat, spent more time on the training ground than anyone else, and basically helped to instil a winning attitude in Kashima that stood the team in good stead for years. Zico didn't come cheap - he was one of the best players ever after all - but he was worth every yen.
China is still waiting for its Zico. Nicolas Anelka isn't the man, how could he be when, according to officials at Shanghai Shenhua, it is written into his contract that he doesn't have to do interviews? He could have been in the faces of 23 million inhabitants of the intoxicating city - exhorting, persuading and pleading with them to visit a stadium that is usually no more than half-full at best.
There is another now. Didier Drogba is a bigger star and still fresh after helping Chelsea to the European title. The setting up of a foundation that bears his name and aims to make a difference in the healthcare and education of disadvantaged African children, suggests that he could be interested in helping Chinese football off the pitch. One would hope so because otherwise, he is going to be a waste of money.
In strict football terms, he will be. When it comes to playing for Shenhua, he is not going to be able to repay the massive amounts invested - even if he does terrorise Chinese Super League defences and help the club to the title. That is unlikely however as with the season approaching the halfway stage, Shanghai are just three points above the relegation zone with a paltry nine goals from 13 games. It has been a crazy six months. Jean Tigana left after less than two months as head coach. More confusion than usual reigned for a while before Sergio Batista took over. Anelka has had little effect, though given the surrounding chaos; he can't really be blamed for that.
Shanghai is one of the fastest-moving cities in the world. It likes stars, glamour and whatever is the next big thing. It is not a football city. If Drogba can help change that situation, then the money would have been well-spent. It won't be easy. There is excitement at his arrival but, by itself, it will not last long.
Even with three months of hype after the Anelka signing, the first game of the season at Shanghai attracted 17,000 fans. Drogba will help draw crowds in Shanghai for a while and all over China for longer. He will raise the profile of the league higher and add to the general excitement. Just being there and playing football will, in the long-run, change little.
It would be asking too much of one man, however famous and talented, to do that by himself but if the biggest star now playing in Asia can do his bit off the pitch, a little like Zico did, and really get involved in Chinese football, then it would be a start. One of the biggest complaints that local fans have about their domestic players is a lack of professionalism, the suspicion that once players make the breakthrough into the game and start getting paid, too many seem to feel that the hard work is done.
Drogba can certainly help - bringing a true winning spirit and everything that entails to Shanghai and maybe elsewhere would be welcome. He could also get busy in Shanghai. Serious efforts to promote the club around the city would make a difference. After all, around 22.85 million of locals don't go to games.
The situation is a little harder in China than it was in Japan 20 years ago. By the time the J-League got going in 1993, the country was already reorganising its youth system with a long-term vision in mind. Zico, as well as Dunga and Dragan Stojkovic, were giving a push to a league that was already heading in the right direction.
It is an easy point to make, but still bears repeating that all these millions being spent on players in China would make a huge difference if they were directed at the opposite end of the football pyramid. One of the companies throwing money around is Wanda. It also sponsors the Chinese FA and offered $77 million for youth coaching last year but still, it was all about taking the best youth players that do come through the system, such as it is, and making them better.
It doesn't change the system itself. It doesn't really go any of the way to changing the fact that there are less than 10,000 registered Under-10 players in China while Japan has over 300,000. It is no surprise that the Chinese are increasingly looking to Japan when it comes to football - not always an easy thing to admit.
The J-league didn't come cheap and there was significant investment in the whole structure at all levels but there was a goal in mind. In China at the moment, that clarity is lacking. This money being spent is not about fundamentally changing Chinese football but about bringing stars and excitement. With the government getting serious about the game - as the ten year prison sentences handed out to two former CFA chiefs this week for accepting bribes shows - and with Xi Jinping, the next president, a football fan, big business is currying favour with politicians all over the country.
Even if Drogba lived up to his nickname in parts of Asia of 'Drog-god', there would not be much he could do about all that. Nobody is asking him to single-handedly change the fortunes of Chinese football but, more than any other player in the country, he is in a real position to do something positive. He doesn't have to start spitting on balls but if he can do his best to make Shanghai a football city and seriously promote the Chinese Super League to the Chinese people, that would be a massive start.