Believe it or not, some English footballers ply their trade in China. Alistair Berg looks are the select few to make the journey to te newly professional league
The Revolving Palace Hotel in Foshan has an English resident. An array of sports clothes, sweatshirts and shorts are hanging out to dry in his room where the main focus of attention is Star TV, the Murdoch corporation’s Asian satellite, whose numerous football programmes are studied with professional interest. John Pickup, a former League professional at Wigan and Chester, is one of two foreign footballers, the other a Cameroonian, playing with Foshan football club, currently eleventh in the Chinese second division.
The circumstances of his arrival in the city are typical of the way that Chinese clubs have recruited foreign talent in recent years. Foshan’s owners, a motor cycle company, had cash to spare from a successful joint venture with an Italian firm and decided to recruit overseas players via an agent in Hong Kong who placed an advertisement in the English PFA magazine.
Last season Pickup was amongst a trio of English professionals at Foshan – the others being Scott Middlemass, formerly of Carlisle, and Darren Tilley, once of York City and Bristol Rovers, who had been the first European to join a Chinese team after the league went professional in 1994. Both have now returned to the UK.
On arrival each had to undertake a daunting stamina test, comprising sprints and distance running, which has been mandatory in China since the national team’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. In the first year 14 members of the national squad failed the tests, broadcast live on TV, and had to miss an entire season before passing their retake.
The foreign professionals are paid in Hong Kong dollars, wage levels being roughly comparable to the average in the English lower divisions. The Chinese players are paid roughly £300 per month, and in contrast to the comfortable life in the Revolving Palace Hotel, live at the stadium in dormitories set into the stands.
Players who are unmarried when they join the club are required to stay single until they’re 28, the club’s reasoning on this point at odds with the conventional wisdom among English clubs who seem to want their players married off and therefore ‘settled’ as soon as possible.
Foshan’s stadium is full to its 10,000 capacity for most home games, and is busy the rest of the week when kids pound around the athletics track on school sports days while the players are attempting to train. Average crowds in the national second division are around 20,000, with twice as many at first division level. Few fans travel to watch their team, though, with away games involving a round trip of up to five thousand miles.
English players in China seem to be valued primarily for their ‘will to win’, a characteristic believed to be lacking in the local players, and they are also perceived to be more tactically aware. Tactics generally don’t seem to figure high in Foshan’s priorities, however, the players spending much of their time in training either belting forward in simulated attacks or dashing back to help out in defence.
The Foshan trio didn’t have an interpreter at first and so would often have to sit uncomprehending through a pre-match pep talk from the club director, lasting up to an hour and a half. Once out on the pitch, the coach would simply point to where he wanted them to stand, usually in or near the penalty area.
English clubs have been visiting China for a while, going back to West Brom’s televised tour in the late Seventies. Watford in particular made a big impression during their two trips during the Eighties and are said to have set the Chinese football authorities thinking about the benefits of full-time professionalism. Strange to think that somewhere in the world there are English players with reason to thank Graham Taylor.
From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month