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Ross: Playing football in China isn’t as easy as some think

The opening of the transfer window has seen the Western media go into overdrive about players moving to the CSL, commonly describing this either as a ‘threat’ to the English Premier league or a ‘joke’.

Most of this coverage is disrespectful and ill-informed, pushing the dominant narrative that players who move to Chinese clubs are effectively entering retirement early and ‘throwing their careers away.’

To see a league that, for all its problems, I have a deep affection for discussed in this way by journalists, commentators and ex-players whose opinions and analysis I previously respected has been particularly hard to take. Admittedly most of these pundits are not claiming to be experts on football in China but, as professionals, it would be fair to expect them to do a little background research on the topic. Personally, I find that looking at a map of a country I’m learning about to be an easy and useful starting point. Doing something as simple as this would show that the ‘easy ride’ these foreigners are signing up for is nowhere near as easy as is commonly believed.

Jackson Martinez not looknig forward to his long flight back to Guangzhou

The prevailing narrative in the media runs that as the level of play in China is lower than in Europe’s top leagues and that teams play less matches, by moving to the CSL these players can ‘take it easy’ and perhaps prolong their careers. Whilst I can’t take issue with either of the first two points, I do not agree with the conclusion drawn from them as it completely ignores the sheer size of China and the travel involved in playing in the CSL. Take Jackson Martinez of Guangzhou Evergrande, the most expensive player in China for a short time in 2016, for example. Aside from the Canton Derby with R&F, every CSL away game Martinez plays for Evergrande in 2017 (assuming he is kept by the club which given his form in 2016 is not a forgone conclusion) will involve a round trip of over 1,500km. Compare this to the longest round trip in the EPL this year which is less than 900km from Southampton to Sunderland (both distances ‘as the crow flies’).  Add in a 2017 Asian Champions League group with South Korean side Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale (both over 4,000km round trips) and he will be thanking his lucky stars that his other ACL game is a short high speed train ride away in Hong Kong.  Others are not so lucky, with those at Jiangsu Suning facing gruelling mid-week trips to Adelaide on Australia’s south coast, defending champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in South Korea and also to either Japan, Thailand or Malaysia depending on who qualifies. Similar fates await the two Shanghai sides should they come through the qualifying round. Take in travelling back and forth to South America, Africa or Europe for international matches and foreign players in China find it easy to rack up the air miles.

Of course, Asian and broader international travel like this is only impacts players at the top Chinese clubs, but it is precisely these clubs who are splashing the cash on big names. What all new foreign players or managers in the CSL will learn to dread though are CFA cup games away in Inner Mongolia, inaccessible Meixian Hakka or remote Xinjiang Tanishan Leopard. These three China League One teams were among those faced by Luís Fabiano ‘taking it easy’ in 2016 in China’s second tier after winning 45 caps for Brazil.

Former China league one side Guangdong Sunray Cave celebrate on a their home swamp pitch

The second point that would emerge from doing some basic research with a map is the number of different climatic zones China covers. Guangzhou has to contend with heavy monsoons during the spring and summer, with the threat of typhoons not unknown. However, because of ‘the show must go on’ policy of both the CSL and China League 1, players having to take the field in completely unsuitable conditions. Guangzhou’s heavy rains are followed by scorching summer temperatures, but these are not limited to the Cantonese city though as the plains of central China are equally inhospitable at this time of year. Especially the ‘three furnaces’ of Nanjing, Chongqing and Wuhan with the former two boasting CSL teams and Wuhan a China League One club. Even higher temperatures are recorded in Urumqi, home to the aforementioned Xianjiang Tainshan Leopard.

Guangzhou R&F subs try to keep warm on opening day in 2014 away at Tianjin

A Western pundit may then be wondering why the season in China runs over the summer when the climate in the south and centre of the country is so unsuitable? The answer is simple: because the winter in the north of the country is even worse. Teams in the dongbei region have to contend with freezing temperatures at the start of the season and few early season fixtures are as unwelcome as an away game in Changchun. Was it easy for Harbin Yiteng’s foreign contingent to play their first seven CSL matches away from home in 2014 because of the freezing temperatures in Harbin? Or their compatriots at China League One’s Xinjiang faced with a similar problem? Forget the clichéd test of a wet, Tuesday evening game at Stoke in January as a to whether a foreign player can ‘cut it’ in England, playing in the CSL offers these star players a chance to find out whether they can do it in a spring monsoon in Guangzhou, a summer heatwave in Nanjing or the cold of the early season games in the dongbei. All these problems come on top of the pollution that clouds (literally) many Chinese cities at different points during the year.

One final point which it might take the pundits bit more research to find out: playing and managing in China is just as precarious an occupation as in the rest of the world, perhaps even more so. Just as signing one high profile player is a statement of intent on behalf of the club, signing an even bigger name in the next transfer would be an even bigger statement, and one which would force a different foreigner out of a job. Look at Elkeson – his goals fired Evergrande to two ACL titles yet he was shipped out to Shanghai SIPG ‘for national glory’, aka to make room for Jackson Martinez. This situation looks like it will get worse before it gets better with the new rules on foreign players.

Elkeson celebrates scoring the winner in 2015’s ACL final – he was sold in the next transfer window

Nor are Chinese owners shy about pulling the trigger on managers they feel have underperformed. Whilst their name may have got them the job in the first place, it won’t save them if results don’t go their way. Sven was let go by Shanghai SIPG despite finishing third in the CSL and taking them to the quarter finals of the ACL for the first time. Most infamously, Evergrande replaced Fabio Cannavaro mid-season with Brazilian world cup winning coach Scolari despite the Italian’s team sitting joint top of the CSL at the time and having qualified for the knock-out stages of the ACL. In doing this Evergrande were just repeating what they had done a few years previously when sacking Lee Jang-soo to bring in Marcelo Lippi.

There are a host of other factors to overcome for these new stars arriving in China but considering just the ones above it becomes obvious that it is far from a simple case of foreigners pitching up in China and watching the money roll into their bank accounts whilst strolling around on the pitch every once in a while.  This is not to gloss over the CSL’s problems but to highlight that the picture is much more complex than that commonly painted by the press. The CSL is an improving league with average crowds of 24k and so deserves to be treated with much more respect than it is currently afforded. Top players may see a decrease in quality on the pitch but plenty of other factors mean that moving to China is not taking the ‘soft option.’

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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