SHANGHAI: A pay dispute, an eccentric owner and smashed-up furniture — and arguing with fans for refusing to bow.
When Premier League stars Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka made surprising moves to China in 2012, they put Chinese football on the map.
Carlos Tevez, Marouane Fellaini and others would ultimately follow as money poured into the Chinese Super League, but the former Chelsea duo’s chaotic spell served as a cautionary tale.
Anelka lasted only one, turbulent year at Shanghai Shenhua while his fellow forward Drogba did barely six months at the club.
Drogba signed in June 2012 at 34, just weeks after he scored the winning penalty for Chelsea in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
“For me it would have been easy to go to another team in Europe but I chose China because of the challenge,” he said at the time, after becoming one of the world’s best-paid players on a reported US$300,000 a week.
Hundreds of Shanghai Shenhua supporters mobbed the Ivorian as he touched down in Shanghai.
“Shenhua’s nuclear bomb has arrived,” Shenhua goalkeeper Wang Dalei said.
Drogba lived up to expectations, obliterating opposition defences and scoring eight goals in 11 matches.
Shenhua fans affectionately called him “Devil Beast”.
Anelka was already at Shenhua when Drogba pitched up having also signed from Chelsea, in January 2012, on similarly vast wages.
But while Drogba was a success on the pitch, the Frenchman found himself sometimes playing out of position in defensive midfield or on the wing.
Anelka managed only three goals in 23 matches before both departed China in January 2013.
I don’t care
So what went wrong?
Shenhua, one of the traditional heavyweights of Chinese football, were owned at the time by video gaming mogul Zhu Jun, who fancied himself as a player on occasion.
Zhu made Anelka China’s first direct import from the Premier League and he also lured another famous Frenchman, Jean Tigana, as coach.
But the ex-Fulham manager was hit by a player revolt against his training methods and was sacked after just five games in charge.
Upon learning his services were no longer required, Tigana departed the stadium before kick-off for a home game, leaving Shenhua without a coach for the match and empty seats in the dugout.
Anelka, who had no coaching experience, announced he was Tigana’s replacement. But Zhu soon brought in Argentine Sergio Batista as coach, much to Anelka’s annoyance.
The former Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool forward also became embroiled in a public row with a fan after refusing to perform the customary bow following a defeat.
“I don’t care,” Shenhua’s skipper, nicknamed “Le Sulk” by British press because of his moody demeanour, reportedly said.
There was the odd high, such as a 5-1 home thrashing of rivals Hangzhou Greentown with Drogba scoring twice and Anelka laying on two assists.
But it was only a glimpse of what might have been and the pair found themselves pawns in a boardroom dispute.
Zhu said his fellow owners had promised him a majority stake because of his heavy investment, and he threatened to withhold the foreign players’ salaries unless they handed it over.
Drogba and Anelka missed several games between them towards the end of the season, ostensibly due to injury, but many suspected the dispute was to blame.
Shenhua finished the season ninth out of 16 teams, despite Drogba’s fierce determination to win — after one match ended in a draw he smashed furniture in the dressing room.
“Wait for me, I’ll be back,” Drogba told media after scoring on the final day of the season.
Weeks later both he and Anelka were gone.