Drogba arrives in China to heros welcome
Didier Drogba was given a hero's welcome as he arrived in China on Saturday to start a two-and-a-half-year contract that is expected to make him one of football's highest-paid players.
Hundreds of fans, many clad in "Drogba 11" shirts, greeted the former Chelsea star at Shanghai's Pudong airport, some carrying flowers, others brandishing his name in English on placards and many jostling to touch him.
"What I experienced at the airport this morning was unbelievable. Even when I was at Chelsea I never experienced anything like this," the 34-year-old told reporters at a press conference to launch his career with Shanghai Shenhua.
The Ivory Coast striker sealed a deal that Chinese and British media have said is worth 200,000 pounds ($314,000) a week, making him the highest-paid player in China and in the top bracket globally.
But he insisted money was not the reason he had moved to a side languishing near the bottom of China's Super League, just weeks after he scored the penalty that won Chelsea the European Champions League.
"China is a big sports country and it is a big challenge. For me it would have been easy to go to another team in Europe but I chose China because of the challenge," he said.
"The money is not the most important, everybody knows that I give a lot of money to my foundation... I didn't come to China with the idea of making a lot of money."
Drogba joins a fast-expanding group of foreign stars who have been lured to China on enormous salaries, which are typically funded by Chinese business titans.
Drogba will play alongside French striker Nicolas Anelka, who signed with Shenhua in January on a deal believed to be worth nearly as much.
The pair will work under former Argentine coach Sergio Batista, who joined the club in May. Shenhua are bankrolled by high-profile video-game tycoon Zhu Jun.
In the far south of the country, World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi is at the helm of league-leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, and Nigerian striker Ayegbeni Yakubu has just signed with cross-town rivals Guangzhou R&F.
Shenhua are just one point off the bottom of the 16-club Chinese Super League, halfway through the season, and there are huge expectations on him being able to lift the team.
"These legs may be 34 but they still feel 26 and I am not thinking about retiring anytime soon," Drogba said.
Shanghai Shenhua play Beijing Guoan on Saturday night at home in what is regarded as one of the biggest fixtures on the Chinese domestic football calendar.
Drogba will not play and said he was not yet sure when he would represent Shenhua for the first time.
"I've been on holiday for three weeks and put on a little bit of weight so I will need to train a little bit. I'm going to speak with the manager, he has to make the right decision," he said.
The Chinese Football Association believes the domestic game, which has endured years of corruption and repeated failures by the national team, is set to take off thanks to the infusion of expensive talent such as Drogba.
"The high-level world-class players and coaches will be able to provide a learning opportunity to our domestic players and coaches," CFA spokesman Dong Hua told AFP.
Critics say the money is being wasted, with the foreigners sometimes getting paid more than the salaries of the rest of the players combined, while grassroots football is being ignored.
However for Chinese football fans, having Drogba is purely a cause for celebration.
"Let me tell you something, now we have Drogba, Shanghai is not a common city anymore, Shanghai is a world mega-city now," said one elated fan, Lu Xiaobo, who went to greet him at the airport on Saturday morning.
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