Wednesday, April 18, 2012
"Nice Try, Lao Che" said a smirking Indiana Jones as he escaped the clutches of the Shanghai crime lord - or so he thought - at the start of the Temple of Doom. It is a line uttered still by departing expats after surviving all that has been thrown at them by that most vibrant of Chinese metropolises. Jean Tigana doesn't do smiles but when he heads through the departure gate of Pudong International Airport, he may have a stronger message for owner of Shanghai Shenhua, Zhu Jun.
Since the second half of the 19th century in the bars of the French Concession in Shanghai, heads have been shaken and shoulders shrugged at the goings-on in the city's international community. Seldom in the past however has the international football community joined in and wondered just what is transpiring by the banks of the Huangpu.
At the moment, nobody seems exactly sure what is happening but despite Tigana's denials, it is almost certain that he is on his way out. The Frenchman was in charge for five games, just long enough to learn that Shanghai is a city where things move quickly. Even so, five games is ruthless even by Zhu's standards - this is a man who fired popular Wu Jingui in the same week that the coach lost his mother in 2008.
In the space of four months, Shenhua have moved from a club that finished in the bottom half of the Chinese Super League and struggled for column inches in their own local media to one making headlines around the world to one that fired their high-profile European coach with just a month of the season gone. For a while, it seemed as if he had been replaced with an even bigger star who not only has no coaching experience but one that few would ever have thought would ever have any.
"I did not expect to take control of Shanghai, but life is full of surprises," said Nicolas Anelka in the club's shiny new clubhouse last Friday, with what can only be described as understatement. "I will not be a coach all my life, but I'm relishing this new experience." It seems that the former Chelsea, Real Madrid, Arsenal and Liverpool man is likely to be a member of the coaching staff along with, slightly bizarrely, former Spurs goalkeeper Ian Walker all helping former assistant Jean-Florent Ikwange Ibenge who continues the French theme.
As a club with eight second place finishes between 1996 and 2008, fans are used to let-downs and disappointments but this was supposed to be a new era. Tigana did not exactly set the coaching world ablaze in the past with stints at Monaco and Fulham but thanks to a glittering playing career, he is a global name and his arrival after Anelka was another statement of intent.
The Mali-born midfield maestro has worked under Mohamed Al Fayed at Fulham. The Egyptian may have his own eccentricities but has nothing on Zhu when it comes to football. The gaming guru bought Shanghai United in 2005, acquired a controlling share in Shenhua in 2007 and then went about merging the two clubs - that episode is worth an article of its own. The fuss had not died down when later in the year Zhu, using a pseudonym, got himself on the pitch for five minutes in a pre-season friendly against Liverpool - a club that he was later reported to be interested in buying.
In China he is known primarily for his hands-on approach at the club. Zhu has long overseen the signing of players, especially foreign players. Rumours that he had often had a say, or even the say, in who played and who did not, have been harder to shake off than the sellers of watches and bags on the Nanjing Road.
From the moment he arrived in January, Tigana never really looked comfortable. The day before the season started, he told this writer that he had no say in transfer policy - absolutely none and compared the situation unfavourably to his experiences in England and France.
So 24 hours later as Shenhua drew 1-1 with a well-organised but limited Jiangsu Sianty team, as well as the 17,000 fans (more than 50% up on last season's average), there was perhaps one Frenchman wondering why Shenhua had signed three strikers when it was obvious that they needed reinforcements in other areas of the pitch. Tigana could have done more though, surely, about a disjointed performance that did not bode well for the future.
The one bright spot, apart from the fact that Shenhua did not lose, was that Anelka was fit to make his debut in the following week's trip to rivals Beijing Guoan. The 33-year-old scored, in vain, as a late goal from Shanghai native Mao Jianqing, gave the capital club a 3-2 victory. A first win came against newly-promoted Guangzhou R&F but defeat against the other Guangzhou team, the champions, and a tame draw at neighbours, in Chinese terms at least, Hangzhou, were underwhelming. When you add reports that players were underwhelmed with the training methods then it is perhaps not a complete surprise that Zhu wielded the axe.
But it has been a messy execution. Nobody seemed quite sure what was going on by the time the next home game rolled around, least of all Tigana who arrived at the stadium denying his dismissal only to leave before kick-off. The dugout, largely void of non-playing and medical staff, was a plastic monument to the chaos at the club. If Zhu Jun had never selected the team before, he must have been tempted last Friday.
After the match, Shenhua's Australian striker Joel Griffiths, who left Beijing in the summer to try something different (a certain phrase of being careful what you wish for comes to mind) said that Tigana had been fired. "It's obvious... He's not here so we have to deal with the new coaches coming in," said Griffiths. "I saw [Tigana] today. I wished him all the best in whatever he does. That was it. This is football."
But only just. It was a bizarre set of circumstances and what was forgotten by all except the club's fans was the fact that Shanghai lost again, a first ever home loss at the hands of Tianjin.
At the moment, Shanghai Shenhua are a mess and Zhu's state of mind is also a concern. "I have lost my interest in soccer," he wrote on his blog at the end of March and then seemingly put Shenhua on the market. "Cost price! ...It's on sale for ¥400 million (around £40 million). I met my psychiatrist friend for two days and I learnt that many people visit a psychiatrist not only for advice but to seek their inner voice, however irrational it may be."
When Indiana Jones left Shanghai, he didn't know that he was on board a plane owned by the man whose son he had just killed. The pilots parachuted out of there leaving the all-action American archaeologist to escape on a rubber dinghy that slid down a mountain. Tigana seems to have made his exit but Shenhua fans are still stuck on the plane and nobody knows just who, if anybody, is in the cockpit. At the very least, they should strap themselves in for a bumpy ride.