Having spent four seasons with Chelsea, Nicolas Anelka joked on the club's website last September that he felt "very old". Four months on, however, the 32-year-old Frenchman is embarking on his first Asian odyssey with renewed passion and vigour after signing for Chinese Super League giants Shanghai Shenhua.
A day before being unveiled to the media by the two-time C-League champions on Thursday, Anelka spoke exclusively to FIFA.com on his move to the Far East, which shocked many of his long-time admirers.
"I’ve always had fond feelings about Asia," said the former France international, who has spent the past decade-and-a-half turning out for some of Europe's elite clubs including Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Real Madrid. "I have been obsessed with the local cultures during my previous trips to the likes of Korea Republic, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau. So I jumped at the chance when Shanghai came to me with an offer."
A native Parisian who began his career with Paris Saint-Germain, Anelka is certainly excited about settling in to his newly-adopted Chinese city, which earns it nickname from supposed similarities to the French capital. "It is my first time to Shanghai but I know the city is known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Friends who have been there told me it is a magnificent city and I am looking forward to seeing it."
Aside from his personal interest, he acknowledged that it was his family's support that helped him make the final decision. "All my family supported me when they learned about my move," he added. "Like me, they are interested in the Chinese way of life and this great city. I will definitely arrange short trips to Shanghai for them so we can stay together for some time there."
Since confirming the deal with Shanghai on 12 December, Anelka's arrival has been the subject of huge interest in China's football media. He was, of course, already a well known figure in the world's most populous nation, given his feats at UEFA EURO 2000 and the following year's FIFA Confederations Cup with France, not to mention his impressive achievements at club level. Shanghai owner Zhu Jn dubbed even him as the C-League's "only world-class star".
"Except for Shenhua, no Chinese clubs has acquired such a high-profile import," he told the local press recently. "I don't see any world-class stars in any local teams. Only Shenhua has a world-class player (in Anelka)."
There is no doubt that the Shanghai supremo, who is reported to have located his next target in the shape of Anelka's former Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba, is counting on the French star to provide his team with fresh inspiration. "Anelka will be a role model for the team," said Zhu. "Our young players are training with growing zest at the moment because they soon play alongside him."
Zhu is also hoping the signing of Anelka will provide the spark for a wider development of Chinese football. "Anelka is just a beginning and [I expect] China to become Asia's leading footballing country in the next one or two decades," he said. "Such Oriental miracles will take place soon."
Despite all these expectations, the fact remains that Shanghai under-performed last season with a disappointing 11th-place finish in the 16-team Chinese championship. And Anelka knows only too well that he won't be able to address that situation single-handed. "In football it is teamwork, not individual effort, that matters," he said. "It is too premature to predict anything but I will do my best to acclimatise to Chinese football and help the team enjoy a great season."