Shanghai Shenhua training ground, 2008. Journalists can come and go where they want, talk to whoever they want and stay for as long as they want.
Four years later, with stars such as Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, they usually get 15 minutes to watch training and a little less for an arranged press conference and that’s it.
Whatever happens in the future for the club, something seems to have been lost. The press pack won’t mind so much if it is all for the sake of progress, but that remains to be seen. Despite the money spent so far, there hasn’t been much of evidence that the club is heading in the right direction as it sits just three points above the relegation zone.
But Shanghai are no normal relegation-battlers. None of the other teams worrying about the drop from the Chinese Super League could dream about signing the man who just won the UEFA Champions League for Chelsea but Shanghai could and did. Drogba is now in town.
He may be 34 but still has much to offer. The Ivorian star scored Chelsea’s only goal against Bayern Munich in the final just weeks ago and then netted the all-important penalty. It was his last act in the increasingly famous blue shirt. Now, Drogba wants to make the blue shirt of Shanghai better known that it currently is.
It won’t be easy. Despite the fact that this is just one of two professional clubs (the other is a new arrival) in a city of 23 million people and is the talk of the football world, the two-time champions attract around just 15,000 fans a game. It is Drogba’s mission to score the goals – the team has managed just 9 in 13 games so far this season) to help lift the big-spenders away from the drop zone.
But it is about more than that. It has to be, or at least it should be. With Shanghai’s eccentric owner (interviewed recently by the Financial Times and asked what the best adjective to describe himself was, Zhu Jun insisted it was ‘me’. He also said: “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.”), you never quite know.
Drogba has shown back in Africa that he is a player with a social conscience. In the glitzy and dizzying world of Shanghai with sleek skyscrapers and maglev trains, he may not need to get involved with the disadvantaged sections of society but what he can do is something that Anelka has not really attempted: he can try to further the cause of club and league.
There are lots of foreign players all over Asia – some famous and some less so. Some have made a real difference and contributed to the beautiful game. Some have just taken the money and played, which is not a crime especially if you play well, and others took the cash and were never heard of again.
Whatever happens, that won’t be Drogba. His time in China is going to be well-documented. The striker himself will go a long way to determining just how his time is remembered. The club needs to show him the way and give him a gentle push. That never happened with Anelka. When I was at the clubhouse ahead of the first day of the season, I was informed that the Frenchman’s contract stipulated that he didn’t have to do interviews.
I only managed to get a few minutes with then-coach Jean Tigana because the Frenchman was annoyed at the fact he had no power at the club and he wanted to get it off his chest. A few weeks later and he was out of the door.
Engaging with the local media is an easy and small step. Just giving individual journalists a few quality minutes each week makes a huge difference. Then it is time to get out into the city and its hinterland — home to more people than most European nations — and then the country as a whole. Sounds easy? Well, nothing in Chinese football is that, but Drogba can do it.
As well as scoring goals on the pitch, the Ivorian can best serve Chinese football by setting and finding targets off it. If so, he will be remembered as fondly by hundreds of millions of fans in China as he is by those who follow Chelsea.
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.