Usually, the arrival of one of the top scorers in the English Premier League to an Asian league would be big news, but the transfer of Yakubu Ayegbeni to Guangzhou Fuli has been overshadowed by Didier Drogba. Neither will care as both these African strikers have adapted to life in China with no problem at all. It is the defenders who are struggling.
They both headed from the English Premier League in the summer after hard and very different seasons in Europe. Drogba’s last act as a Chelsea player was to score the penalty that gave the team a first European title to break London’s duck in the continental competition. He also headed the team back into contention to take the game against Bayern Munich into extra-time and penalties.
Yakubu ended his English time in less glorious fashion, chasing a chicken around Ewood Park as Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Premier League. It had been a roller-coaster season for the Nigerian. Few fans were excited about the injury-prone striker arriving from Everton in August but two goals on his debut against Arsenal changed all that.
He soon became a hero and scored 18 league goals for a team that got relegated — an impressive feat. It was a tempestuous season with fans angry at the club’s Indian chicken-farming owners, Venky’s — hence the fowl protest on the final day of the season.
Drogba’s signing has been one of the stories of the summer in the entire world of football. Shanghai Shenhua’s purchase of Nicolas Anelka in December put the team under a global spotlight. But even when the Frenchman arrived, the whole city was asking the question. “Will Drogba come? Will Drogba come?” Anelka was a star but Drogba was at a different level.
It is no surprise that since Drogba arrived in July, Shenhua suddenly look like a team. In the previous months, it had been a disaster. Coach Jean Tigana was fired after a few weeks, there were wild rumours of Anelka taking his place – thankfully this turned out not to be true – then bad results, relegation troubles and problems between the Frenchman and the club.
Drogba arrived in the nick of time. He has energized the entire club. With minutes of his debut, he almost scored with an outrageous 40-metre free-kick and then set up his team’s winner with a perfect through ball. But there was more. He was everywhere and unlike the more reserved Anelka was encouraging his team-mates, patting them on the back after a misplaced pass and pumping his fists at every opportunity. This was a new feeling at the club.
Then it all came together on July 4. Against local rivals Hangzhou, Drogba inspired the team to heights it hadn’t reached all season. He scored twice as the Blues won 5-1 in front of an ecstatic home crowd –suddenly all seemed right with the club. After the game, Drogba was interviewed by Chinese television and instead of taking the plaudits, paid tribute to his team-mate. “I scored two goals but the best player on the pitch was Anelka. he was fantastic, he was everywhere in attack and in defence. He showed why he is the captain.”
There are no longer any fears of relegation though the hopes of finishing in the top three and the Asian Champions League are a little on the optimistic side.
That is not the case for Yakubu. Drogba takes most of the headlines, though he doesn’t always want them but the Nigerian has been prolific. English fans chanted “Feed the Yak and he will score” and in the region of China that takes food the most seriously, the striker has been scoring. Five goals in seven games has the team back challenging for a place in the top three.
“It has been a good start here,” Yakubu said earlier this week. “It was great to score in my debut against a team like Evergrande. I always believe if you train hard and play well, the goals will come naturally. The playing style in C-League is different from that in the Premiership but the atmosphere is just as great, with cheering fans, magnificent stadiums and first-class facilities. So it is no big difference for me.”
Certainly, his goalscoring remains just as impressive. Drogba and Yakubu are two African strikers who have arrived in China via England and have already made quite an impact.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.