Exclusive: “The CFA tried to make me cut my long hair” – 1996 foreign pioneer speaks out
In an absolutely remarkable exclusive interview with one of the first Western footballers to play in the Chinese Football League, pioneering Swedish midfielder Pelle Blohm tells all about his amazing adventure with Dalian Wanda (now Shide) in the 1996 Jia-A season.
With professional football only in its third year in China, things were vastly different in many aspects. Blohm found himself isolated some 16 years ago, and unable to communicate in the provincial northeastern port city of Dalian – a city which even now lacks the cosmopolitan lifestyles on offer that the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Dario Conca enjoy nowadays in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Read on as Blohm talks candidly, yet fondly of his unforgettable experience in which he:
- Became a hero during Chinese football’s boom years
- Didn’t have any translator for his first three weeks at the club
- Became embroiled in a two-month dispute with the CFA over his long hair
- Was shocked to discover Sun Jihai was his only non-smoking teammate
: Many thanks for agreeing to this interview Pelle. I read some interesting stories about your time in China in a piece I saw online interviewing you about Anelka coming to the CSL, sounds like you really got into the spirit of things during your year in China.
Pelle Blohm: No worries. It’s an important time in my life and I like to share my memories if anyone feels it’s interesting enough. I’m glad to see that you read the Reuters piece about me and Anelka.
: Could give us a brief bio of your current activities? I believe you are a broadcaster at the moment, yes? Feel free to include links to personal sites if you wish.
PB: I’m working as a freelancer and have done since I stopped playing football. I have worked for many TV channels, Swedish radio, and many newspapers and magazines. At the moment I work for Canal Plus with the Swedish first division but I have been covering international football. And I have my column in the local paper Nerikes Allehanda and I blog for www.offside.com. My own homepage is at www.blohm.se. It’s all in Swedish I’m afraid. I write pieces about music, literature and the society too. It’s not only football in my head. And I am a reader too sometimes, companies hire me to talk about things I know about. Sometimes China.
I also wrote the book Pionjär i mittens rike (Pioneer in the middle kingdom) in 2004. I have tried to get it translated both to English and Chinese during the years but I haven’t made it. That’s a bit sad because there are some really interesting things in there about meeting a completely new culture and all the culture clashes. But also a lot about the football and the games.
Life at Dalian
: In 1996 you left IFK Norrkoping and spent a year playing for Dalian Wanda (now Shide), a year when the club won the league. The Chinese professional league was only in its third season, was it an exciting time for the game in China then, could you feel the enthusiasm for the domestic league? Was it a boom time for the game in China?[pullquote]the game was really in a gold rush then in 1996[/pullquote]
PB: Yes the game was really in a gold rush then in 1996. People’s Stadium in Dalian had 50,000 watching our home games and I walked around as a superstar in the city. Almost every stadium we played at around China was full, except against the army team and the games in Guangzhou. The supporters walked around with the clubs jerseys and TV and the newspapers was always around. I could really feel the enthusiasm.
: How did you get the chance to play in China? How did agents connect with Chinese clubs at that time?
PB: A Swedish businessman who made business with Wang Jianlin who owned the Dalian Wanda and Wanda Group got the assignment to get new players to Dalian Wanda. He looked for free transfer player in Sweden and made some calls. I was one who got a call. After two try out trips to Dalian I decided to stay for one year. So he wasn’t a football agent only a businessman in general.
: Did the club have much experience of bringing in foreign players at that time? Was it a weird and wonderful experience, did you have much opportunity to get into the community? Can you tell us what was the anecdote or story you remember best from your first few weeks in China?
PB: I think that the club had players from Russia and maybe some other former socialist countries before I came. But they had never brought in western European players before. It was a strange feeling going there, nobody spoke anything other than Chinese so at first there were a lot of misunderstandings and a struggle to communicate. After about three weeks the club employed a translator and it all cleared up. My first weeks in China (away from my time as a trial player) was in Kunming at the big training camp that all the teams went to before the season. The most strange thing there was the running tests that all the players had to go through. You could be banned for a whole season if you didn’t run 3km in a certain time. That was strange.
: When you first arrived, what footballing aspect struck you as most different to your time playing in the Swedish league? And what aspect of life in general seemed most different?
PB: The most different thing in general was that the team lived together as a long training camp almost all year around. They where free one day a week and went out drinking and then back to football again. I couldn’t live like that and negotiated with the club so I could live with my girlfriend in the city. My first thoughts about the football aspect was that the teams didn’t have any defense at all, they all wanted to be heroes and score goals. The tactical knowledge was low. That was good for me. I was a defensive player with a good eye for the game so I could make a difference.
: You played a key role in Dalian’s title-winning 1996 season, being voted midfielder of the year. In all honestly, in which ways were the players you played alongside better than how you imagined they would be, and in which ways were they not so good?
PB: After watching the pre season games I was in shock. It was all much worse than I had expected. But something happened the same day the league started. Everyone became so much better. The players where very good with the ball and their speed was impressive. But they had problems with discipline, off and on the pitch, and their defensive skills and team organization was very poor.[pullquote]After watching the pre season games I was in shock. It was all much worse than I had expected.[/pullquote]
: How was your relationship with the Dalian fans? Can you tell us anything funny about your interaction with them?
PB: Again there were problems with communication. But the fans were great, they always supported me. When I went out in the streets they always came to me to try to talk and show me support. In cafés and restaurants there was always someone who wanted to pay for the dinner and by you a beer. One day I went to buy new running shoes in a shopping mall, after ten minutes in the shop I felt watched. I turned around and looked at two levels full of supporters and curious people studying every move I made in the shop. It was crazy. Everybody loved football in Dalian.
: As a player from a country with a long history in football, were you ever asked by the team for advice or suggestions on training or any other aspect of Dalian Wanda FC?
PB: The coach, Chi Shangbin, was a very good trainer. Humble and very calm. He had spent some time in Japan before coming to Wanda and understood me as a foreigner a little better than everyone else in the club. I liked him very much. He asked me now and then about small tactical things, he asked me about my years in European football. But I never took part in any of the planning or decisions that he made before training or a game. Also, the problems with communication between us was a problem. We had to talk through the translator.
: Are there any players you either played with, or against, who left an impression with you during your time in China?
PB: The only opponent I still remember was a young U-21 national player who played for Tianjing Samsung. I met him in Tianjing in the first game in the league and he was really good. Fast, good with the ball and smart in his way of moving around on the pitch. I underestimated him and the game because of what I had seen at the pre season games.
In Wanda we had many skillful players but if I should mention one in particular it must be Sun Jihai. I think he was 17 years old then and played his first season in the first team. What made him special was that he really took football seriously. He was the only one who didn’t drink or smoke, he trained very hard and was quite modest which was rare at that time where most of the others played their role as football superstars. I wasn’t surprised when I a few years later read that he was moving to England as a professional.[pullquote]What made Sun Jihai special was that he really took football seriously. He was the only one who didn’t drink or smoke[/pullquote]
: Did you ever hear any inside news about the Chinese world cup squad? What was the feeling then as China were trying to qualify for France 98?
: Despite your success, you only stayed for one season in China, why?
PB: I was the first Swedish player (together with one more Swede) [Editor’s note – Patrik Svensson] and the first Western European player in the club. The year was a struggle to understand the new culture, to deal with the idea of the loss of face which was so important. Almost no one understood English, everyday I had problems to communicate and make myself understood. And I became seriously sick with a very high fever there I almost lost consciousness at a hospital, my girlfriend couldn’t talk to anyone and she thought that I was dying. And I had problems with my contract, the club was alright but the businessman who had negotiated the contract ripped me off and I had to fight for my money.
: Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in China ?
PB: I have no regrets. My year in China is one of my most important years in my life. I learned so much about myself, I learned about a totally different culture who very few people knew much about at that time in 1996. I had wonderful and caring teammates who did their best to make me happy every day. Through my translator Liu Rentie I got a way in to Chinese everyday life and he taught me all about the secret or underlying codes of the Chinese society. How to behave and how not to behave. We became really good friends and are still friends.
: Did you ever come across anything during your time which seemed corrupt or illegal? How did you deal with it? How do you view the corruption scandals which blew up a few years after you left, in China?
PB: I believe I was naive in the beginning. I didn’t think about corruption at all and I never saw anything myself. But I was involved in a fight with a Brazilian player in the summer and got a red card. The Chinese FA wanted to suspend me the rest of the season. After a lot of meetings between the club and FA they cut it to only one game. When I asked how come they just said, “You don’t want to know Pelle.”
I also had problems to change my Chinese renminbi, that I earned for winning games, to American dollars at the end of the season and I made some decisions in a grey area. It was forbidden for foreigners to change money in a Chinese bank at that time. So I had to bribe some people to make it happen. But it was me as a private person doing this and the club had nothing to do with it. I heard and read of the scandals a few years after my time there and wasn’t surprised. I was not that naive anymore. I heard it was really serious for a while but got no further information about it. My contacts didn’t want to talk about it.
: Can you tell us the most ridiculous thing that happened to you in China?
PB: That must be my fight against the Chinese FA, they wanted to force me to cut my long hair that I had in 1996 . It took me two months and a lot of effort from me and the club to persuade them to let me play. It worked out in the end but it took a lot of energy and it made me really angry.
: You went back to China in 2006, right? Did you take in any CSL games then? How had the game developed?
PB: I went to one league game for Dalian Shide in 2006. It was a bit depressing. There were only about 5-6.000 in the stadium watching the game. The Chinese league was in a deep crisis and everyone was very low. The game on the pitch looked the same. Not much had changed since my time. But that opinion is based only on that one game.
: Do you still keep in touch with anyone from your China experience?
PB: I have contact with my translator Liu Rentie who help me to stay update with things in Dalian, some old teammates and some gossip from Chinese football. Outside that I have no contact unfortunately. It’s bit sad that the social communities like Facebook are banned in China. Otherwise I think it all would have been easier to stay in contact with more friends. I also have contact with a journalist at Titan Sport. Zhang Li is his name. But he is a newer friend, not from the year of 96′
: Do you plan to return to China any time soon?
PB: I made a promise to my old teammates, my coach and to Liu Rentie in 2006 that it wouldn’t take ten more years before I return again. Now six years has past since then. So you understand that I must go back as soon as possible. I’m looking forward to it. Last time was pure magic. I have never experienced such warm friendship anywhere else as I did during my days together with almost all of my old teammates 2006. Pure magic.
: What would you say to any foreign player wanting to play in the CSL?[pullquote]Things are so different in China now compered to when I was there. It’s much easier to live in China now, the big cities are like any others in the world[/pullquote]
PB: Things are so different in China now compared to when I was there. It’s much easier to live in China now, the big cities are like any others in the world. More people can speak English and it’s easier to keep in contact with home. In 1996 I was isolated in a way, cut off from fiends and family. But anyhow I should say that you have to be prepared for a battle with the problems that comes with the way Chinese communicate. They never say things straight out, they build in their messages in a story and you have to understand that. That could be frustrating for a European. And what I heard is that there hasn’t been much change in this losing face culture compared with 2012 and 1996 and that’s always a problem if you aren’t prepared for that. This will affect your life both off and on the pitch. But in the end I would say go for it. More for the adventure than for the chance to develop your footballing skills.
: Anelka has had a rough time in China so far, why do you think that is?
PB: I read the interview on your website and his problems are exactly what I talked about in an interview for Reuters before Anelka signed his contract. His problem as a striker is in getting good passes from teammates who lack the skills Anelka is used to seeing. And also the lack of smooth communication between him and the club. Misunderstandings about his work, promises of more players and his disappointment about things not going as he thought they would. I can recognize his frustration about some of these things from myself in 96′. He wasn’t as prepared as I told him to be. Hahaha…
: What kind of personality types are best suited to playing in China, in terms of foreign players?
PB: I’m not really sure. But you have to be a very open-minded person. You have to be patience and not to pedantic because things aren’t the same as in Europe for example. I think you need to be a little bit more mentally strong then the average person/player and be able to take care of your self. You are a bit on your own and need to cope with that.
A Chinese future?
: Can you tell us anything else of interest regarding your current activities, do you ever talk about your Chinese experience whilst broadcasting in Sweden? How did the Swedish football media report your time there?
PB: I have been interviewed and I have been writing articles about my season as the first Swedish player in China many, many times during the years. Only one day ago I talked about it in a radio show I was invited onto. The subject was interesting for many people because of China’s development from 1996 until today. I tried to make a documentary to but failed. And off course I wrote my book that I already told you about. But my time there and the memories are a bit out of date now so I need to get involved in China again in some way.
: How do you think Chinese football will be in 10 years time?
PB: They have all the keys to success but the clubs must be free from the Chinese FA, they need to get away from corruption and I also think that the they have to improve the football education for the young players. But I think it all comes together with the development of the society in general. You can’t just buy international stars and think that it will all work by itself. Off course, they can be role models, but to improve in the long-term you have to build a floor, a foundation, before you build the roof. With a population like China they must surely reach success at some point. But maybe not in ten years.
: Anything else you’d like to add?
Only that I really want to get closer to China and Chinese football again. So if anyone has any suggestions or an advice how just let me know, you know now where to find me.
: Many thanks for your time Pelle and sharing your fascinating China stories with us.
Author: Cameron Wilson
UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…