x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Shanghai Shenhua dances to the tune played by their mercurial owner

Internet mogul Zhu Jun has even threatened fans he would move the club after being jeered during a match.

Zhu Jun, made his fortune as Chairman and CEO of The9 Ltd, an Internet company primarily known for licensing
Zhu Jun, made his fortune as Chairman and CEO of The9 Ltd, an Internet company primarily known for licensing "World of Warcraft" for the China market. As Chairman of Shanghai Shenhua football club, he once forced his coach to put him on the pitch for the start of a friendly against Liverpool. He lasted five minutes before being substituted.

HANGZHOU, China // Even if, as is often suggested, Nicolas Anelka's former paymaster at Chelsea holds a certain sway in team decisions, few can argue Roman Abramovich has ever dared interfere with squad selection quite to the extent of the Frenchman's newest employer.

Zhu Jun, a Chinese internet gaming tycoon and the owner of Shanghai Shenhua, is as controversial as he is charismatic.

When the Chinese Super League side played against Liverpool in a 2007 friendly in Rotterdam, he made Osvaldo Gimenez, the former coach, select him to start the match.

He lasted five minutes before being substituted.

Episodes such as the one in Holland have resulted in the multimillionaire being cast as a footballing laughing stock, but the 45 year old has serious wealth to match his serious ambition.

Zhu, the founding chairman and chief executive of The9 Ltd, made his fortune in part by purchasing the Chinese distribution rights to the World of Warcraft franchise.

When his company floated on the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2004, its founder pocketed around £60 million (Dh350m) and his personal fortune has increased substantially since.

Within a year of The9's flotation, Zhu was a football club owner acquiring Shanghai United. In 2007 he paid more than $20m (Dh73.4m) for a controlling stake in Shanghai Shenhua, then merged the city's two top-flight teams into one.

Fans were outraged as the club retained the Shenhua name (with league titles in 1995 and 2003, it had more history than the lesser-storied United) but inherited the majority of the United squad.

Zhu then stoked the flames by choosing to dismiss Shenhua's hugely popular and successful coach Wu Jingui while retaining the services of the Uruguyuan Gimenez.

When fans turned out to jeer their new owner - who it had become common knowledge at times talked to the team before the match - he threatened to move Shenhua 300km away from Shanghai to Wuhu, in Anhui province.

Instead he ploughed more than 600 million yuan (Dh350m) into improving the squad and, having played against Liverpool, was in 2010 linked with a consortium put together with the intention of buying the English Premier League club. According to those close to discussions, the group should never have even got close to the negotiating table.

When set to such a backdrop then, Shenhua's acquisition of Anelka is perhaps not as startling as it first appeared.

The Frenchman is reportedly earning £200,000 a week at his new club, where he plays under the newly appointed coach Jean Tigana, and Zhu has been making strong noises about pairing the 33 year old with his former Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba.

He said recently the No 11 shirt has been reserved for the Ivory Coast forward.

Yet in a twist fitting of a man who seems to court the spotlight, Zhu has apparently only this week threatened to sell his majority share in Shenhua unless he is allowed to increase his stake.

Were the internet tycoon to leave, it could be game over in the pursuit of Drogba as well as leaving the club shackled with Anelka's wages for the remainder of their prime asset's two-year contract.

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