SHANGHAI, China, August 14 – Didier Drogba’s first month in China is being heralded as an unequivocal success, the powerful Ivory Coast striker earning rave reviews, the moniker “Devil Beast” and being compared to “a nuclear bomb”.
The 34-year-old became one of the world’s highest-paid players when he swapped European Champions League winners Chelsea for the relative obscurity of the ambitious Shanghai Shenhua, in China’s Super League.
Vocal in English football, Drogba has kept a low profile off the pitch since arriving in China to a hero’s welcome in mid-July, insisting that his reported 200,000 pounds ($314,000) a week was not the main motivation.
“China is a big sports country and it is a big challenge,” said Drogba on his arrival, fresh from scoring the goal which won Chelsea the Champions League.
“For me it would have been easy to go to another team in Europe but I chose China because of the challenge.”
Drogba got off to a flying start at struggling Shenhua — then 12th in the 16-team Super League — scoring twice on his home debut in the 5-1 thrashing of longtime rivals Hangzhou Greentown and quickly earning the tag “Devil Beast”.
The fanatical home crowd, swelled from the usual 15,000 to 25,000, chanted the veteran’s name repeatedly and gave him a rousing cheer as he performed the traditional post-match bow.
“Shenhua’s nuclear bomb has arrived,” Shanghai goalkeeper Wang Dalei said of his new team-mate, who joins another former Chelsea striker, Nicolas Anelka, at the club.
Although Chinese teams have been luring a fast-expanding group of foreign stars to play for enormous salaries, Drogba is the highest paid and has quickly become a fan favourite, eclipsing Anelka.
“We suddenly found out that football, which is very close to us, can be so thrilling, so touching and so good that you can’t help but tremble,” prominent football commentator Ji Yuyang wrote in the Oriental Sports Daily.
Despite the plaudits, Drogba has had only a negligible effect on his team so far. He has not found the net since his double and Shenhua are still struggling, creeping up to 10th in the table.
Not that the fans are laying any blame on their new hero, who is on international duty on Wednesday when Ivory Coast play Russia in a friendly in Moscow.
“Reliable, exciting and full of class, he’s a real leader on the pitch, hopefully he will lead us to glory over the next two years,” said Lu Xiaoming, a long-time Shenhua fan.
British expatriate Andy Summers, another Shenhua supporter, added: “It takes time to settle in, but he’s played great so far.”
The biggest name to play in Chinese football, fans in the northeastern city of Changchun clambered over locked stadium gates to get a glimpse of Drogba during a training session when Shenhua visited for a cup match.
Shenhua’s eccentric owner, Zhu Jun, posted a photo online showing the bashed-up back of Drogba’s silver Mercedes-Benz Viano after enthusiastic fans gave chase and rear-ended the vehicle, though he was not inside.
Drogba is a rare beam of light in a league battling to recover from a bribery scandal that saw scores of officials and players jailed for match-fixing.
Although that was before Drogba’s highly anticipated arrival on a two-and-a-half-year contract, scars remain and many Chinese fans still prefer to follow European clubs.
Shenhua have their own issues. Zhu, a billionaire online gaming tycoon, is notorious for putting himself on in matches — despite being in his 40s and mediocre on the pitch.
During his pursuit of the player, Zhu said that “chasing Drogba is like trying to get a girl, you put in too much effort and she seems less interested”.