“My contract is very complex and it’s very difficult for me to return [to Boca Juniors],” Carlos Tevez reportedly said to Argentinian media last week. “The Chinese are not stupid.” Not stupid, but there are plenty at Shanghai Shenhua wondering whether signing the forward was a major mistake and a waste of money.
Reports quoting weekly salary figures of £634,000 to make Tevez the highest-paid player in the world in the pre-Neymar days of last December may have been exaggerated, according to the man himself, but there is no doubt that the 33-year-old is receiving a pay packet heavier than rush-hour Shanghai traffic.
Yet instead of getting a hero to spearhead the team’s bid for a first title since 1995 (the 2003 win was struck off for match-fixing, and there were eight second places from 1991 to 2008 when a missed Hamilton Ricard penalty was the difference), many of Shenhua’s loyal fans have taken to social media in the past week or two to express indifference over whether Tevez returned from a trip to Argentina. He went back to Buenos Aires early in August to recover from another injury and returned to Shanghai just before the month ended.
Shenhua fans have given him a nickname, a play on how his name is pronounced in Chinese, that means “very homesick boy”. Manchester City counterparts would understand. In 2010, his City team-mate Roque Santa Cruz explained: “He wants to be among his people, who are in Argentina. Your heart goes out to his family. His siblings and his daughters are there … when you feel that your homeland is calling you back, you could end up giving up everything to return.”
Yet it is Shenhua making the sacrifices. The Colombian playmaker Giovanni Moreno has been a hero at the club for six seasons but was shunted to the side in the early days to accommodate the Argentinian’s arrival. Tevez’s first competitive game was a crucial, though fairly comfortable-looking, one-off home Asian Champions League play-off against Brisbane Roar. He was as ineffectual as the team were imbalanced. Brisbane won 2-0. Any hopes of concentrating on the domestic league did not last long. Despite a 4-0 victory and a good performance on the opening day, there followed one point from the next three games. Displays were equally poor.
And then Tevez was injured. Without him, Shanghai won the next two, producing their best showing of the season at Changchun. Questions would have been asked had the media not been distracted by the sight of Tevez visiting Shanghai Disneyland with his family on the same day his team-mates were working hard far away in the north-east. “What is the matter with you?” went one headline. If Tevez, on a two-year contract, had been playing well, then it would have been a smaller deal. Any honeymoon period ended there and then.
Once fit, he was always going to come back into the team but his influence has been limited. He has missed half of Shenhua’s 22 games, scored two goals – one from the penalty spot – and the team sit 11th out of 16. Tevez was expected to provide dynamism, energy and spark in attack but it has not happened.
He has struggled off the pitch too, with almost constant rumours that he is unsettled. Tevez claimed there were only two restaurants in Manchester but nobody could say the same of China’s commercial capital that has a population of 23 million. Yet the player has still to adapt. The team’s manager, Gus Poyet, said in May: “The language is complicated – but with the food, there are people who suffer a little more and that happened to Tevez. At the beginning he did not eat almost anything.” South American club-mates Fredy Guarín and Moreno tried their best. “We had a barbecue … and we had to remove the Chinese food,” Poyet added.
Shenhua have been here before, though the club is much better run than it was in 2012 when the previous owner, Zhu Jun, brought in Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. Zhu made his money in online gaming. He once sacked a coach whose mother had just died and famously selected himself for a friendly against Liverpool.
In the days leading up to the 2012 kick-off, I sat with the new coach, Jean Tigana, in a brand new clubhouse at Shenhua’s Pudong training ground, all black steel, glass and beanbags and situated metres away from youth academy buildings that were falling apart. Tigana struggled to keep it together when the conversation came to what it was like to work with Zhu. He did not last long and neither did Anelka or Drogba, who Zhu seemed more interested in using to promote his new online game than to collect points on the pitch. Soon they were struggling to get paid and heading home.
In 2014, Greenland, another real estate developer to enter the Chinese Super League, took over and stabilised the situation. The club finished fourth last season, a best showing since 2010.
With Tevez, more was expected. He has not been terrible but, when he has played, just underwhelming. Fans at the club – some of the most loyal in Asia – have not seen anything that suggests this is a player worth the money he is supposedly banking. He may have surprised a few by returning from Argentina last week but eyebrows would be raised higher than the Oriental Pearl Tower if he was back in Shanghai next season.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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