HANGZHOU, CHINA // On a mild Saturday night in a city 160 kilometres south of Shanghai, a familiar face stands in the bowels of the Yellow Dragon Stadium.
Black, bearded and possibly bemused, the newly appointed captain of Shanghai Shenhua is about to lead his team out against Hangzhou Greentown in the Chinese Super League's fractious Yangtze Delta Derby.
As ever, he looks surly. If football shorts had pockets, his French hands would almost certainly fill them.
In the continuous cacophony of Chinese whispers that buzz like crickets among the 20,073 bodies filling the belly of Hangzhou's 51,000-seat arena, one word dominates. Or, that is, one word is recognisable.
The syllabic pronunciation is slightly askew, but it is undoubtedly discernible and everyone is saying it: "Anil-kuhr".
Nicolas Anelka, the 33-year-old Parisian, who in January swapped a bit-part role at Chelsea to become the most high-profile signing in the history of Chinese football, has provided an injection of intrigue into a league still fighting to recover from a 2006 corruption scandal that saw scores of players, coaches and match officials arrested for gambling and match-fixing.
"Anelka is great," Bo Yufei, a masters student dressed in a counterfeit Greentown shirt, told The National through a translator.
"I am very excited to see him play because he is so famous and previously played for my team, Chelsea. Hopefully, he is the first of many players from around the world to come here because then the league will get better and help China reach the World Cup finals again."
The 16-team Chinese Super League, in spite of its problems, has remained well supported, attracting an average of 17,947 spectators to each game. Yet part of Shenhua's long-term project - which has also so far included recruiting the former France, Monaco and Fulham coach Jean Tigana - will be to improve the club's gate receipts.
Despite operating out of China's most populated city, Shenhua last year held the unenviable record of attracting the league's fourth-lowest average home attendance with fewer than 10,000 filing into the 33,000-capacity Hongkou Stadium each week.
Three home ties into the new 2012 season and with Anelka in tow, the 2005 champions have yet to attract fewer than 16,000 fans to a match.
"For sure, it has made our team and Chinese football more popular," said Cheng Fangjing, a Shenhua fan from Shanghai. "Now people talk about us, which makes me proud."
For 2012, no doubt to help with Anelka's reported salary of 2 million yuan (Dh1.16m) per week, season ticket prices have been raised.
A season pass for Shenhua now costs as much as 1,500 yuan, a figure more discouraging when you consider that it represents the total disposal monthly income for an average urban resident of Shanghai. The cost is also substantially more than other CSL teams.
On Saturday, the cost did not discourage more than 1,000 Shenhua fans making the trip south for what has grown into an increasingly rivalrous - and apparently at times violent - derby match.
A convoy of 12 coaches were provided a police escort for the final leg of their journey, with traffic halted at every junction to ensure the buses need not stop.
On arrival at the ground, spectators were greeted by hired security, riot police and members of the Chinese army. Inside the ground, as Anelka stood in the tunnel with a pennant in his hands, banners in English reading "Fight for Soul" and "Blue Boys" were strung up on display.
Yet the ferocity of a North London derby or a Turkish derby - both of which Anelka played in during his spells with Arsenal and Fenerbahce - was missing on the pitch, where it ended 1-1. Tigana, who cut a frustrated figure in his post-match news conference, said that while Anelka, scorer of Shenhua's only goal, is improving, the Frenchman's teammates must work harder.
The assessment was not revelatory to fans of the domestic league. While Yufei, the masters student, said: "Anelka alone is not able to make the team capable of winning; you need several good players playing alongside him, which they don't have."
Sun Tao, a student in Hangzhou and sporting a Greentown scarf, said he was "not envious at all" of Shenhua in their capturing of Anelka and said the former Manchester City forward might struggle to lead them to success. "There is a Chinese saying that goes 'Gold will shine no matter where it is, but if the gold is under the earth, it will not shine'. Anelka is like the gold under the earth - his talent will not be seen.
"Shanghai Shenhua used to be good, but now their level has decreased and he is not playing alongside other good players." Shenhua have picked up only five points from a possible 15 and managed only five goals, two of which were scored by Anelka.
His goal on Saturday was greeted passionately, but before they had even stopped celebrating, the home side had equalised courtesy of slack defending. As Renatinho, Hangzhou's Brazilian striker, was mobbed by his teammates, the Shenhua captain cut a solitary figure standing on the halfway line.
With his arms crossed and his head shaking in disapproval, he looked exasperated and dispirited. Ultimately, he looked alone.
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