Shanghai: The eyes of football fans across Asia will be on China this weekend as Shanghai Shenhua and its star striker Nicolas Anelka kick off the most eagerly-awaited Chinese Super League season ever.
The French star arrived in the city of 20 million in January after a high-profile move from English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea,one that reportedly made him the highest paid player in the world,to signal that Chinese club football has arrived on the international stage.
Anelka already has a legion of fans in Shanghai, and is looking forward to the challenge of being the biggest star in the world's most populous nation.
"There is always pressure in football," said Anelka, who has also played for Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool. "Wherever I've played there have always been high pressure games. Of course, there's a lot of attention on me right now, but I'm just here to do my best for Shanghai Shenhua, to score goals and play well for the team and the fans."
Anelka has been joined at the club by fellow Frenchman Jean Tigana, former coach of Monaco and English Premier League club Fulham.
Shanghai may be the story of the CSL, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Shenhua will lift the title for the first time since 2003 or even be in contention. The team finished a lowly 11th last season and Lee Jang-soo, coach of champion Guangzhou Evergrande, doubts whether one signing will make a huge difference to his rivals.
"The level of Anelka is very high and Shenhua will be hard to deal with this season," Lee said. "But I have to say that soccer is a team event and relying on one single player will not help a team win games."
Lee led Guangzhou to the title by a massive margin of 15 points in its first season after earning promotion to the top flight. The southern club started the spending spree in Chinese football in 2010 by hiring a number of well-known Chinese international stars and adding highly paid foreign players.
The most famous is of those is Dario Conca. The Argentine midfielder arrived in Guangzhou last July after a deal worth more than $10 million. Along with Brazilian strikers Cleo and Muriqui, he helped take Guangzhou to the next level.
That was in evidence on Wednesday when, in the team's first ever appearance in the Asian Champions League, Guangzhou traveled to the home of 2006 Asian champion and 2011 finalist Jeonbuk Motors and stunned the Korean team with a 5-1 victory.
"We have strengthened since last season and we want to defend our title," Lee said. "We have spent more than $50 million because we wanted to build a team quickly. We have eight Chinese international players in our roster and we have more that are capable of playing for the national team. We know though that this year will be more difficult as other teams have invested in new players."
Dalian Aerbin is another new team in the mix. The club has quickly risen from China's third tier and is as ambitious as Shanghai. Both clubs have been recently linked with moves for Didier Drogba, another Chelsea striker.
In football terms, Dalian Shide has been the most successful club in Chinese history. But the traditional powerhouse and others such as Shandong Luneng and even 2011 runner-up Beijing Guoan are in danger of being left behind. Beijing finished second last season but has lost star Australian Joel Griffiths to Shanghai.
Not all view the money being spent as entirely positive. Ex-Dutch international Arie Haan has experience coaching the Chinese national team and believes the money is being invested in the wrong places.
"You can't build a house from the top," Haan said. "You build the base and then go to the top. What China is doing now is what America did in the seventies; they built from the top.
"A lot of famous players came to America,Franz Beckenbauer, Pele,but what did they help?"
As evidence, Haan pointed to the fact that China's national team was recently eliminated from the third round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the third such failure in succession. He thinks China will be best served by developing homegrown talent.
"The Americans started to improve later when they ... developed their own stars, and today they have a very good national team," Haan said. "China will get more publicity when its players rise to the star level."
There are also concerns that only three of the 16 coaches in the top division are Chinese. The other clubs have imported head coaches from South Korea, Japan, France, Portugal, Serbia, Brazil, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Netherlands.
Zhu Jiong and his coaching team at Nanchang are paid a tiny fraction of the three million euros ($4 million) that Tigana and his staff receive at Shanghai, but have to compete in the same league.
Such misgivings are lost in the general excitement ahead of the new campaign. Shanghai, which played in front of an average attendance of 11,000 in 2011, anticipates selling out its 33,000-seat stadium for the foreseeable future. Guangzhou attracted regular crowds of 45,000 last season.
More are expected in 2012 as China prepares for its biggest season yet.