Some smash it on FIFA. Some hit golf balls. Liaoning Whowin’s Australian defender Josh Mitchell uses his spare time to document his life as a foreign footballer in China.
‘I like to relax in my spare time and conserve energy so documenting my adventures seemed like a good way to utilise my free time,” he explains on his blog, j-mitch.com
The post “Yogurt Factory, Chinese Revolution & Private Jets” is an entertaining tale of promotional and cultural visits.
‘After watching 18000 yogurts being produced in the hour we spent at the factory,’ he writes, ‘it was time to board the bus again and travel 2 hours to Xibaipo, a village about 90km from downtown Shijiazhuang which was the location of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army during the decisive stages of the Chinese Civil War in 1948/49’.
From a Communist past to the capitalist present, Mitchell’s cultural adventures continued via his club’s wealthy owner. The real-estate mogul allowed Mitchell and a few teammates a chance to experience his own luxurious lifestyle.
Spacious seats, leather couches, fresh fruit platters, wine and private staff; the flight home from a recent Liaoning Whowin (pronounced “Liao Ning Hong Yun”) match was a peek inside the life of China’s affluent.
“It was just fantastic as I've never flown in a private jet before. Something to aspire to one day,” Mitchell tells www.a-league.com.au
Based in the north-east city of Shenyang in the province of Liaoning (“Picture six million people crammed into the Sydney CBD to Bondi and to airport”, he explains), the Newcastle-born defender has thrown himself into Chinese culture after signing with the club 10 months ago from the Jets.
This includes watching the cultural phenomenon that is Chinese dating show “If You Are The One”, now a cult hit in Australia on SBS 2 and watched by around 50 million Chinese TV viewers weekly.
“My missus is back in Sydney and she’s watching this show like every night! And she downloads it,” he says, slightly baffled. “That’s China in a nutshell. All the craziness, that’s every-day life here – especially when you get away from Beijng and Shanghai.”
Daily life for Mitchell, 30, is less crazy. Training with the team mostly in the afternoons, the Aussie defender takes the 25km journey to the club’s HQ with the four other foreign players who live in the same apartments in the city.
“We have about four or five fields, and gym…. the quality of the training and the sessions I’d heard a few stories but it’s really surprised me how well we train and how thoughtful are the coaching staff.
“It’s quite similar to Australia … [but] we have a translator who barks instructions even though the coach speaks a bit of English.”
It’s obviously working for the team dubbed the “North-east Tigers”. Chen Yang’s team are unbeaten, on eight points and in fifth spot well within reach of pace-setters Beijing Guoan, Shanghai, Greenland Shenhua (home to Tim Cahill), Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng.
Mitchell's side drew 2-2 with Changchun Yatai on Saturday, the Aussie playing a full game in this round 4 clash. “It’s not the glamour of the Bundesliga or the Premier League,” Mitchell explains. “Things are done differently here and you have to adapt. If you don’t know what you’re in for, you’d probably struggle.
It helped that Mitchell visited China with Perth Glory on a pre-season tour five years ago. And mate Ryan Griffiths, a former star for the red and black, gave him the inside word on life at the club.
"They have a lot of respect for Australians [players] and foreigners in general. Foreigners get pampered a bit more...”
"Chinese football is just going to grow and grow,” Mitchell adds. “And when Tim [Cahill] comes here it paves the way...
“Within five years it'll be up there with the leagues in Korea and Japan and certain leagues in Europe just because of the investment clubs are making and the players here. There are guys here from South America who could easily be playing in the major leagues in Europe."
He’s right. Shenhua’s Paulo Henrique Ganso was the next big thing at Santos at a time when Neymar was coming through. At 25 he’s in his prime.
And Dario Conca, the mercurial Argentine at Shanghai SIPG and formerly of Guangzhou Evergrande, has earned himself a big name (and even bigger bank balance) in China.
"They're here for the money, basically, and the football and the way you get treated,” Mitchell adds.
It’s much better life than in Romania where Mitchell is still owed money following a stint with Universitatea Craiova in the previous decade.
But for China to grow into a regional superpower, grassroots are key. And they have some powerful visionaries. President Xi Jinping wants China to become a powerhouse, decreeing that schoolchildren must learn the game's rules as part of Chinese football’s “reform plan”.
“If they do bring football into the schools over the next 10 or 15 years then football can really take off. But at the moment, if you’re not with the elite level – say an academy like ours – then you’re on your own. But for sure it has the potential to take off,” says Mitchell. “Even in the nine months I’ve been here I’ve seen my club improve on and off the pitch.”
However, while life is good for Mitchell in China mention Newcastle Jets and you sense deep dissatisfaction with his hometown club, the perennial A-League under-achiever.
“They need to get the right people in. It needs to be wiped clean and started over again,” he says clearly frustrated.
“Whether Nathan Tinkler’s involved in that, that’s a separate issue. Everything needs to go and everything needs to start again: from the absolute top down.
“Clubs like Newcastle don’t put the right people in there [behind the scenes] and they wonder why every year the turnover’s so high and the results aren’t there.
“Even guys like Robbie Middleby – I’ve a lot of time for the guy and I’ve played with him – but he’s not a General Manager. That’s not his job. It’s beyond him. And look at the coach now… I know Robbie’s gone now but he was there too long. It’s very frustrating."
So, will Mitchell be back in Newcastle or stay in China?
"I'm playing in China now which is something I've always wanted to do. Now I'm taking each year and game as it comes."
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