Often dismissed as a pre-retirement money-spinner for western stars, the Chinese Super League is deadly serious, argues Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng player Ryan McGowan
When he was just 16, Ryan McGowan moved more than 10,000 miles across the world, swapping Adelaide for Edinburgh to join Heart of Midlothian.
For one simple reason: to achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
He had to leave his family behind and embark on a journey which has taken him from the top flight of Scottish football to providing an assist at the World Cup and, now, competing against the likes of Hulk and Oscar in the Chinese Super League.
While his partner and young son remain in Scotland, McGowan is enjoying another spell in the burgeoning league, eight games into the season with his third Chinese club, Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng, who play in Guiyang, in the southwest of China.
The 27-year-old signed up in February until the end of the year as one of the club’s five foreign players, joining former QPR midfielder Tjaronn Chery and Everton forward Nikica Jelavic.
The Chinese experience
“I was coming into a team as a low-risk signing,” the defender tells i. “I’d already been there two years, I knew the league, I knew what to expect. I was already pretty prepared. They kind of see me as an experienced Chinese player.
“On the negative side it doesn’t give you too much bedding-in time. They expect you to hit the ground running, you can’t really say ‘I’m not used to the league or up to speed’.
“China has been good for me and I think I have done well over here.”
“They want to become the best, they want to learn from the best so they are open to all ideas.”
McGowan, who has 18 caps for Australia, first moved to China over four years ago when a destitute Hearts were in desperate need of cash. And as one of the club’s most profitable assets, McGowan was a prime option for being sold on.
The Edinburgh club had previously tried to offload the versatile Aussie to Rangers. Come the 2013 January transfer window the situation at the club had become so severe that a bid from Shandong Luneng provided vital funds.
It was at a time where the CSL was in its nascent stages of attracting star names and building the infrastructure that has become a staple of the league. Yet McGowan was still jolted by what he witnessed on arrival.
“I had really gone with an open mind.” he explains. “At that time I hadn’t really heard too much about it. I found out four or five days before I actually jumped on a plane so I was trying to find out as much as possible about teams and places and how the league works.
“I was pretty blown away when I arrived here, just the scale of everything. They are so keen and so willing to try and be the best at everything.
‘It blew my mind’
“When I was at Shandong – it’s a huge club – they took me to the training facilities and on the way in the car they were trying to warn me that they were still working on things and everything is not perfect but hoping it would be up to my standards.
“I arrived to a huge training complex with eight pitches, a 3,000 seater stadium for fans to watch us train, artificial pitches, swimming pools, and a gym which was almost the size of the pitch.
“It blew my mind. It was one of the best training facilities I’d ever seen and I tried to play it cool, ‘yeah, this is fine for me’.”
Those first two years were McGowan’s most successful, helping Shandong finish second in 2013 before lifting the Chinese FA Cup the following year.
In a team which included Vagner Love, McGowan was the hero with two assists in the first-leg before netting what proved to be the decisive goal in the second-leg.
Following a move back to Scotland, McGowan was hoping to extend his stay with Dundee United but another opportunity presented itself in China with Henan Jianye, before the move to recently-promoted Guizhou.
The defender is well-placed to observe the changes and progress made within football in China.
In the four years since first arriving, average attendances have jumped from 18,000 to more than 24,000, while the names, both directing from the sidelines, and those dictating on the field, are more ostentatious.
“When I first joined Shandong there was maybe four or five teams that wanted to win the league, whereas now there’s probably nine or ten who want success.
“Almost every week you are playing against a top quality striker, a real world class player. Some people make fun of the Chinese league but if you put some of those players in any team in the world all of a sudden those teams don’t look too bad!”
Chinese Super League star names
🇨🇴 Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande)
🇧🇷 Paulinho (Guangzhou Evergrande)
🇦🇷 Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune)
🇧🇷 Ramires (Jiangsu Suning)
🇦🇷 Carlos Tevez (Shanghai Shenhua)
🇧🇷 Hulk (Shanghai SIPG)
🇧🇷 Oscar (Shanghai SIPG)
🇧🇪 Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)
🇨🇴 Freddy Guarin (Shanghai Shenhua)
“There’s been huge improvements from when I first arrived. More money has been pumped in, better facilities, a lot of stuff is going on behind the scenes.
“The tip of the iceberg is the (Carlos) Tevezs coming in and the crazy money they are getting, but they’re equally putting that into training bases, young players, coaching staff, programmes for school kids.”
With the finance available it’s not simply a retirement league.
Players in or near their prime, such as Axel Witsel and Oscar, are joined by players with promise – Christian Bassogog – as well as more experienced heads like wily centre-back Ricardo Carvahlo.
‘China is very serious’
Cameron Wilson, founder of Wild East Football, has been following Chinese football for 17 years and tells i:
Chinese football has always had enormous potential and it’s only in the last 18 months or so that the rest of the world has taken any notice, since CSL clubs started signing big stars.
The main advantage here is that there is a long-standing fan culture going back to the ’90s – that is not a long time in Europe of course but it is in Asia, so there has been passion for the game here for quite some time. If you read the international media, they tend to present football as new to China, but it isn’t.
The fan culture here is amazing, there are many dedicated fan groups, ultras and other hard-core supporters who have followed their teams for over 20 years.
The drawbacks are that China has many systematic problems which hold football back, such as political interference in the game and a highly-pressured society which doesn’t like it’s kids to play the game, so it’s going to take a long time to fix all the game’s problems.
The Chinese are in general extremely welcoming to big stars who want to play football here. Obviously they come for big money but in China there’s so much culture and life to be had away from football and I think this is attractive to all foreigners.
China is very serious. We don’t know how exactly the market will develop, there may be more or less money pumped into it in the coming years but the long term trend is definitely upwards, because of government support and also a genuine affection for the sport here.
Recent developments will mean we will see Chinese clubs build their own strong local identities, and this will make Chinese football culture strong and the business of Chinese football more sustainable and lucrative.
The financial gulf in earnings, as well as the different expectations for domestic and foreign players, may lead some to think that it could cause tension within squads. McGowan explains that’s not the case; rather, the added spotlight means extra scrutiny for the imports.
“Every Chinese Super League team has its own training facilities and team hotel which houses all the players and coaching staff,” McGowan says.
“The foreigners don’t have to live in the team hotel but all the Chinese players, unless they are married, are required to stay in the team hotel. They live like that 24/7 at the hotel so everything is monitored, from the time they get up, breakfast, lunch, dinner, training, laundry.
“Everything is fully focused on them being 100 per cent ready for training so they have no excuses for physio appointments or massages. It is all controlled so they can get the best out of themselves.
“The Chinese players are so focused and settled in their ways and that’s because they want to become the best players they can and they see by doing that it gives them the best opportunity to get everything out of themselves.”
🇧🇷 Luiz Felipe Scolari (Guangzhou Evergrande)
🇵🇹 André Villas-Boas (Shanghai SIPG)
🇺🇾 Gustavo Poyet (Shanghai Shenhua)
🇨🇱 Manuel Pellegrini (Hebei China Fortune)
🇩🇪 Felix Magath (Shandong Luneng)
🇮🇹 Fabio Cannavaro (Tianjin Quanjian)
And with that dedication towards their profession it has led to a style and pace which McGowan feels may surprise newcomers.
“Because of what they do outside of game-day they are 24/7 professionals and totally focused, in tip-top condition.
“When we get our stats, all midfielders run over 11-12km. In Scotland I know they didn’t run that far with the stats we used to get.
“They are very athletic, they can get around the pitch. I think that can take a few people who come over by surprise.
“If they can’t match you technically they’ll make that up by being able to run past you or sprint more times than you, or muscle you off the ball.”
The language challenge
It’s clear that, both on and off the field, little is left to chance.
Foreign players are provided with translators, with three for the five overseas members of the Guizhou squad – and each is available when manager Gregorio Manzano is running through training drills.
It does, however, mean players don’t have the pressure of learning the local language.
Although possessing a few words, certain situations can prove difficult, or funny, depending on a player’s mindset, leading to a lot of pointing and “a big game of charades”.
McGowan, who confesses he’s not been great at sampling the local cuisine, enjoys the adventure, but the hardest aspect is the time difference, making it difficult to speak to family and friends.
Yet he has nothing but respect and admiration for China, and would recommend the league “100 per cent” to any players presented with an opportunity.
‘Why can’t they be the best?’
“The next generation will have world class facilities that not many kids or countries in the world will have,” he says. “If they can keep at it and really focus on it there is no reason why they can’t start producing top class players.
“They want to become the best, they want to learn from the best so they are open to all ideas.
“They let everybody know they want to be a powerhouse in football. Everyone kind of laughs at that but why can’t they be the best?
“They are doing everything they can and it should be applauded rather than put down.
“I admire them for wanting to be the best.”
More from iFootball
Mr Perfect: why Cesar Azpilicueta is the real star of Chelsea’s defence
When Dennis Bergkamp scored the Premier League’s greatest hat-trick
‘The pressure is immoral’ – uncovering the dark side of youth football
Dexterity, accuracy and FIFA skills – the people behind Opta’s football data
Beyond 4-4-2: Michael Cox on 25 years of Premier League tactics
Second Captains: the Irish sports fanatics changing the podcast game