How did Zhu Jun persuade Didier Drogba, one of the world’s most famous footballers, to join a team that most have never heard of, in a country not usually associated with football?
Last month Drogba scored the winning penalty for Chelsea in the final of the Champions League, club football’s biggest prize. In his eight seasons there the London club won 10 trophies and the Ivorian became one of the game’s most feared strikers.
Last week, having turned down offers from top European clubs believed to include Real Madrid, the 34-year-old signed for Zhu’s Shanghai Shenhua, currently 12th out of 16 teams in the Chinese Super League.
Drogba insists money is not the sole reason he agreed to the two-and-a-half-year contract (though a salary of €12m may have had some bearing on his decision). So what is the secret of Zhu’s success?
When we meet in Shanghai a couple of weeks before the Drogba deal is announced, I am expecting someone crazy about football, crazy about famous foreign players, and just possibly a little bit crazy generally (as rich sports club owners often are). Zhu comfortably exceeds all expectations – except those relating to our lunch, which he has insisted should take place at 10.30am.
This can’t be the place, I protest in dismay when a nervous hotel concierge shows me to the coffee shop of the Radisson Blu Plaza Xing Guo Hotel in the city’s French concession. Complete with gold pleather upholstery and mock-medieval coffered ceiling, this is the kind of proto-western coffee shop that can be found all over the world serving lukewarm breakfasts.
Zhu’s staff have assured my translator that the “Fragrant Camphor Garden” (as the hotel coffee shop is alluringly known) is his favourite restaurant – and whetted our appetites by suggesting their boss would recommend special dishes off the (doubtless vast and delectable) menu. Since lunch with a multimillionaire is seldom on my calendar, I have high hopes of the kind of exquisite food I have learnt to love in China.
But when Zhu, 45, breezes in, wearing trainers and a T-shirt, it is quickly clear that this will not be a culinary experience to write home about. He orders a Coke, and insists he is not hungry (under pressure, he eventually orders the soup of the day, Thai spicy sour prawn, from which he will slurp a perfunctory spoonful and then leave to get cold). I choose spaghetti bolognaise, which seems to best suit the ambience, and drown my epicurean expectations in Diet Coke.
Zhu does not want for confidence, a quality that must have come in useful when courting a modern sports superstar such as Drogba. “Don’t you think my thoughts are great?” he asks me at one point, insisting the translator relay the question to me in case I did not catch it first time. He seems to view himself as a kind of philosopher-entrepreneur, somewhere between Bill Gates and Buddha. “My thoughts are up here,” he says, gesturing above his head, “but others don’t understand them.”
Drogba is, he tells me, “the best centre-forward player in the world” and many teams want him. Zhu has pulled off transfer coups before. This year Shenhua landed former French international striker Nicolas Anelka, then a teammate of Drogba’s at Chelsea, in a similarly eyebrow-raising deal.
On May 31, Zhu started himself alongside Anelka in a friendly match and played until half-time. (He did something similar in a match against Liverpool in 2007, when he lasted just five minutes before retiring from the field.) Over lunch he makes it clear that he also intends to play up front with Drogba. “We will surely play football together. I played football with many international football players. My goal is not to play with them. I can play with everyone.”
But as the owner, why is he playing at all? “Football is a game every man loves,” he says. “Through playing football, we hope to become stronger. China is becoming richer nowadays but, from my point of view, China is rich rather than strong. The country is lacking resistance. But football is a game full of resistance.”
What kind of resistance, I wonder? “Conflict,” he replies. “China is not strong because people never say ‘No’. Tradition makes them restrain themselves rather than being open. What I am doing is to prove we can actually do everything, no matter whether the general public understands us or not.” Then, in case I don’t understand him, he turns to my interpreter, laughing, “This interview begins with highlights! Translate to her!”
“I love football,” he goes on to say, before explaining patiently to his female interviewer and her female interpreter that men love to win and football is about winning. “Women can’t understand why men hope to win,” he says, adding that he only started playing football at the age of 30. Before that, “I played basketball, I never even touched a football.”
The one thing Zhu loves even more than playing football with world-class players is the thought of other people watching him. “I think many rich people will be jealous when they see me playing football with professional players,” he says. “They won’t be able to see their stiff legs working in a football match.” Zhu has no time for rich people other than himself: he says the rich in China are doing nothing with their money except “drinking and watching their bellies get big”.
Zhu made his money in online gaming before buying Shenhua, which means “flower of Shanghai”, in 2007 and merging it with its local rival Shanghai United. “An eccentric chairman of an eccentric club in an eccentric league,” is how Cameron Wilson, founder of the English-language Chinese football blog Wild East Football, describes the club’s owner.
Shenhua’s main spending rivals in the increasingly free-spending Chinese Super League are Guangzhou Evergrande, who last month hired Italy’s World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi. Currently top of the table, Evergrande are watched by crowds of 50,000. Shenhua, by contrast, often play in a half-empty stadium. Zhu has been through nine coaches in six seasons (three in the past two months, not counting Anelka who was briefly installed as player-coach); threatened on his microblog to sell the team; and has a habit of selling players to fund his other business activities when he runs out of money. Yet he insists football is a hobby not a business.
If the hope is that world-class players such as Drogba and Anelka can help create a world-class football nation to rival China’s status in the global economy – or for that matter, in ping-pong – it will not be easy. A mere 2,000 years after a game suspiciously like football was invented in China, the world’s most populous country has yet to make its presence felt in the world’s most popular sport.
The Chinese love to watch football; when the country qualified for its first and only World Cup tournament to date, in 2002, a reported 170m new television sets were bought to follow the team’s progress. But Chinese state media has quoted football officials as saying that only 100,000 children, in this land of 1.3bn, are playing any form of organised football, partly the result of high levels of corruption in the past.
The country’s presumed next ruler, Xi Jinping, recently outlined his plan for the Chinese game: first qualify for another World Cup; then host a World Cup; then win one. Part of Zhu’s vision, it seems, is that “Chinese football needs idols. Good young players will only be attracted when we make achievements.”
Eager to find the man behind the vision, I ask him about his background but he becomes elusive. “I grew up in Shanghai. I don’t have any background,” he replies. When pressed, he admits he dropped out of Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University after a couple of years, and moved to the US but makes it quite clear that is all he plans to reveal. What job did he do in the US? “Let’s skip that.”
Fast forward to the present: what kind of car does he drive? “I have lots and lots of cars … I just throw them in the garage.” What kinds? “All kinds.” It emerges eventually that he has 17 cars, including a 1956 Jeep, an Aston Martin, a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce and virtually every other famous luxury car brand – but he says the main bit of advice he would give to someone who wants to get rich is, “Don’t buy luxury goods.”
It is not clear whether this is a non sequitur, deliberately counter-intuitive, or a reflection on his own finances. In 2004, Zhu’s gaming company, The9, held the exclusive licence in China for the online game World of Warcraft. He was the country’s 57th richest man, with a fortune of $205m, according to the Hurun Rich List, which ranks China’s wealthy. But following the cancellation of that deal, which brought in some 90 per cent of revenues, by 2009 he had fallen off the list. Last year the Nasdaq-listed The9 had net losses of Rmb284m (£28m) but Zhu has high hopes that Firefall, another online game developed by a studio he controls, will take up the slack. “One thing is quite certain,” he says, “the money I spent on Shenhua is not a big deal.”
I ask him why he recently threatened to sell the club. “Who told you that?” he barks. I point out that he himself posted the threat on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. “I was just angry,” he says, insisting that his players know he did not mean it. “The players won’t care. They play for anyone who pays the bills,” he says.
Does he feel the same way about the coaches he changes so regularly? “The world has so many coaches,” he says. “It is not abnormal we change two coaches in one year as we do not have any long-term plan. We’re different from Europe.”
“Football can express China’s thoughts,” he says, becoming philosophical once more. “Football helps us to express complicated thoughts in a simple way: 400m to 500m people watch football, and young people will one day understand the meaning. Although such thinking seems absurd, we have to try to do that.” Though he vows to go on repeating himself, he fears people may not fully understand him until “several decades” after his death.
For now, I ask him what adjective he would use to describe himself: “Me”, he replies promptly. Even in Chinese “me” is not an adjective, so the translator and I persist, thinking he has not understood the question. But Zhu stands his ground: “me” is his adjective, and he is sticking to it. I guess the “special” something about Zhu is persistence. The laws of grammar, the resistance of world-class footballers, the adulation of his fellows; there is no task too tough for Zhu Jun. He is a man who gets what he wants; defeat is not an option. Two weeks after our meal, Drogba signs for Shenhua.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent. Additional reporting by Shirley Chen
Fragrant Camphor Garden Café
Radisson Blu Plaza Xing Guo Hotel, Shanghai
Thai spicy sour prawn soup Rmb45
Spaghetti bolognaise Rmb80
Cod saltimbocca Rmb198
Diet Coke Rmb45
Total (including service) Rmb475 (£47.55)
Expensive imports: What Didier Drogba can expect
Signing Didier Drogba has given Shanghai Shenhua fans hope that the side’s so far disastrous 2012 season can be turned round, writes Jake Newby. But we’ve been here before, of course – a mere three months ago in fact.
Nicolas Anelka’s much trumpeted arrival led many to predict that Shenhua might win the league even though they had endured their worst season in nearly a decade in 2011, finishing 11th in the 16-team Chinese Super League (CSL).
It took Anelka just 40 seconds to score his first goal for Shenhua on Chinese soil (a pre-season friendly against Hunan Xiangtao), an apparent sign of intent before he made his competitive debut against hated northern rivals Beijing Guoan, in the Chinese capital’s Workers Stadium. He scored against them too, celebrating by vaulting the advertising hoardings and running towards the small group of away fans who had travelled more than 1,000km to see Shenhua play on a Friday night. The supporters, who had been made to wait in the ground for four hours before kick-off with no food or water, were enraptured.
Shenhua went on to lose 3-2 but Anelka’s performance highlighted the obvious gulf in class between him and the others on the pitch, confirming him as Shenhua’s latest saviour. His concerted PR effort helped too – he repeatedly played to the Shanghainese desire to be considered a true international city like New York or Paris by professing his love for his new home and the local dialect, while presenting a shy persona in contrast to the owner Zhu Jun’s limelight-grabbing antics.
Since then, however, things have unravelled in dramatic fashion. Despite Zhu billing Anelka’s signing as a stride forward for Chinese football, the impact on attendances at Hongkou Stadium, a purpose-built 33,000 arena in the north of the city, has been limited. Shenhua still regularly fail to top crowds of 15,000 in a city of more than 20m. Indeed, attendances have rarely topped 20,000 for as long as I have been watching them play since 2006 – last season’s average gate was 10,000. Fans who have shown up this season have been treated to a dire opening 13 games, in which Shenhua have scored just nine goals, leaving them languishing near the bottom of the table.
Given that some expectant Shenhua fans have been wearing Drogba number nine shirts all season, the Ivorian is guaranteed a warm reception. Yet the experience of Anelka is a warning that foreign players in the CSL don’t necessarily get an easy ride in return for picking up a large cheque.
Things have changed since I watched stunned in 2008 as an elderly fan, exasperated by the sluggish performance of Shenhua’s then big-name foreign player, the Colombian Hamilton Ricard, ran on to the pitch to demonstrate how to shoot properly. (Unfortunately, Ricard didn’t heed the warning and in the last game of the season botched a penalty that would have seen Shenhua win the championship.)
But the recent nine-game ban Guangzhou Evergrande handed to its own star player, the Argentine attacking midfielder Dario Conca, for reacting petulantly to being substituted, is a sign that there will be a significant culture shock awaiting Drogba when he arrives in the CSL.
Jake Newby is editor of Time Out Shanghai