Gazza’s tears at Italia 90 moved a nation, that goal at Euro 96 brought them to their feet, and his move to Lanzhou in 2003 had them reaching for their atlases. “The most naturally gifted English midfielder of his generation” playing in the Chinese second tier. WEF looks back at Paul Gascoigne’s short time in China.
Before he became the first major – albeit ageing – foreign star to sign for a Chinese side, Gazza had already made headlines in Beijing and Hong Kong showing both sides of his character.
The England squad went to China for some warm-up games ahead of Euro 96. The main event was a friendly with China at Gongti where the noise was “astonishing”. Gazza had “this Chinese guy all over me like a rash” but was man of the match as he scored one and made another.
Other aspects of the trip had less appeal. Gazza “couldn’t be bothered” to go to the Great Wall because it was too far away. He made the right choice. “When the lads got back they were pissed off because they didn’t get to see much of the wall because there was repair work being done and the steps to the top were blocked off.”
The tour ended with an infamous visit to Hong Kong. After a 1-0 win over a Hong Kong XI, manager Terry Venables let the players go out for a drink. The night “escalated and started going a bit crazy”, culminating in the dentist’s chair. “It seemed like the best idea ever and about eight of us had a go” Gazza later wrote. Not put off by the hammering he received in the press, Gazza recreated the moment in a celebration at Wembley.
At the time of his first visit to China, Gascoigne played for Scottish Champions Rangers, after starring at Newcastle, Spurs and Lazio. By the time of his second visit to China, his career was coming to a close. After leaving Burnley in 2002, the 36 year old was linked with Exeter, Darlington and Northampton. Instead of the English lower leagues, his next chance came on tropical Hainan Island.
At the end of 2002 Gazza joined Liaoning’s pre-season training camp in Hainan. He didn’t immediately fall in love with China. The language barrier meant that he confined himself to his hotel room which was “like being locked in a cave.” For amusement he went fishing for koi carp in the hotel’s ornamental pond using “the nearest biscuit type thing to a Jammy Dodger that the Chinese have” as bait. He caught one.
At the end of a two week trial he scored in a friendly for Liaoning but didn’t impress his teammates. One reportedly said “there seems to be a mismatch between his reputation and his actual performance”. The press were equally damming, calling him “weak and clumsy.”
Liaoning were also unconvinced and wanted Gazza to extend his trial by a week. He refused, and spent three days training with second tier side Gansu Tianma instead. In late January he joined Gansu as a player/coach for a reported £400,000 saying “I’ve been missing football and this is a great opportunity for me.”
But what exactly had Gascoigne signed up for? For somebody who had played at the World Cup and starred in top European leagues, arriving at his new club must’ve come as something of a jolt. “The most naturally gifted English midfielder of his generation” was now playing in a city more famous for noodles than football.
Gansu Province is in China’s North West. Flanked by mountains and deserts, the Silk Road ran this way in earlier times and the Tianma in the club’s name refers to the heavenly horses that travelled the route. The Yellow River also flows through Gansu and the provincial capital Lanzhou where Gazza’s team played. Almost 1,500km from Beijing, Gazza described Lanzhou as “the most polluted town in China…a bit like Gateshead used to be, but not as nice.”
Gansu was, and still is, one of China’s poorest provinces. Bizarrely, it seems the Gansu Tianma team was founded with help from the Tianjin municipal authorities as part of an economic development campaign in 1999. The Tianjin link doesn’t end there. Gansu Tianma couldn’t play their way out of the third tier so instead bought their way into the second tier, taking Tianjin Lifei’s place for the 2002 Jia B season. They took Tianjin’s players too as the squads merged. Tianma also invested in high profile coaches – former internationals Chi Minghhua and Zuo Shusheng were named as assistants, with ex-Bayi player Chen Yiming as General Manager.
Despite this off-pitch experience and some of the biggest crowds in the league, Gansu Tianma struggled at the higher level. They would’ve been relegated at the end of 2002 if China’s qualification for the World Cup hadn’t meant relegation was suspended that year.
In a city where football had not previously been king, Gazza’s arrival was a huge story. The papers devoted multiple pages to Gascoigne, or Jiasikeyin as his name was pronounced by the locals. They hailed the arrival of an international footballing superstar in their relatively unknown city. Could one of the stars of Italia ’90 really be playing for a team in the Chinese second tier? It was almost unbelievable.
Gascoigne’s colleagues were a bit more circumspect. “We noticed he has two shortcomings; one is his physical fitness, another is leg strength,” General Manager Zhong Bohong said. Others were unsure why Gansu were putting so much faith in a 36 year old ex-international. Lee Jang-soo, then managing in Qingdao, wondered whether as a former South Korean international himself he should also be playing rather than managing? Scepticism wasn’t only confined to China – The Guardian wrote that the move “smacks of desperation.”
Gascoigne silenced his critics – to the extent that it is possible to do so in a pre-season friendly – by scoring a hat-trick against Guangdong side Sunray Cave. His team were in Guangdong to prepare for the first round of the CFA Cup. With Gazza helping from the touchline, Gansu won one but lost two of their round robin games and didn’t advance to the knock-out stages. Things weren’t much better off the pitch. “The hotel mattress felt like it was stuffed with goal posts, the toilet overflowed and the only wildlife in the hotel was tiny, brown and had six legs.” Unable to speak Mandarin, Gazza couldn’t talk to most of his teammates, leaving him isolated. Eventually his dad and a friend came out to China, whilst manager Gong Lei – himself a former player – also spoke some English.
Gazza in Jia B
The media circus followed Gazza to Wuhan for the opening game of the Jia B season. Reporters were trying to pay Tianma to arrange interviews with the star, some papers were hiring good looking female university students who could speak English specifically to interview him, whilst others tried to get a few words at baggage reclaim in Wuhan airport. Even local hotels were getting in on the act. The manager of the place where the players were staying came to the airport to personally escort them to the hotel.
Over 10,000 fans flocked to Wuhan’s historic Xinhua Road Stadium to see Gazza, although he wasn’t even on the bench for the Jia B season opener. Wuhan Guoce (as they were known that season) beat a Gascoigne-less Gansu 4-2.
Gazza made his competitive debut against Qingdao Aokema on March 29th. He stole the show; scoring, giving an assist and winning a penalty. Nearly 30,000 saw Gansu Tianma win 2-0 but they were really there because of Gascoigne. Even Zhong who’d been worried about Gazza’s fitness seemed to be won over by the “world class goal. He stole the ball in midfield, beat two defenders and carried it all the way to the edge of the penalty box” before scoring in the top corner. No wonder Gazza ripped off his shirt in celebration.
Taking the acclaim from the fans in the Qilihe Stadium stands as he was substituted with five minutes left was the high point in Gascoigne’s Chinese career. He was described as “mediocre” the following week in a 3-0 away loss to Zhejiang Greentown. Jia B’s Round 4 did bring a goal from the penalty spot in a 1-1 draw against short-lived Guangdong Eagle though. It was Gazza’s last action in China. He was back in England by the time Gansu Tianma played their next league match.
Off field struggles
“The football itself was fine” according to Gascoigne but being alone in Lanzhou led to the resurfacing of old demons. The football season being suspended because of the SARS outbreak only made things worse. Realising that he needed help, Gazza flew to the US for treatment at Cottonwood in Arizona.
The club had allowed Gazza to leave for treatment but were angry when he didn’t return for training in mid-June. Citing the SARS outbreak – Everton cancelled a planned tour of China and the Women’s World Cup was moved to the US because of SARS fears – as well as unpaid wages, Gascoigne remained in England. He never returned to Gansu. “I had a row with Gansu Tianma about my contract. As far as I am concerned, they still owe me money. What with one thing and another, in the end, I never went back.”
A Gascoigne legacy?
The great Gansu football experiment ended later in 2003 when the team moved to the eastern coastal city of Ningbo. They later moved to Dongguan in Guangdong before fading from existence. This was hardly Gazza’s fault. Nor was it unusual. Two of the three teams Gazza played league football against no longer exist, and the Wuhan team he watched from the bench was also disbanded – although was quickly reincarnated – before the decade was out.
With his old team no more and their stadium demolished, Gascoigne left little visible legacy from his time in China. It would be harsh to expect otherwise from such a short spell.
He was the first major foreign star to play in China though. Whilst his signing didn’t change the path of Chinese football, it certainly foreshadowed the direction it would later take with the arrival of highly paid, sometimes ageing, foreigners. No matter their age, Gazza’s story is also a cautionary tale for modern players. Loneliness can still be a problem and rows over contracts are hardly a thing of the past. Gazza’s time in Gansu was fleeting, but his story is still relevant.
Gascoigne quotes from Gazza My Story (2004) and Glorious, My World, Football and Me (2011)
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