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Gazza In The Guo - How Did One Of England’s Best-Ever End Up In Tier Two Chinese Football?

2002 was a year marking multifaceted change across the globe. George Bush gave his “Axis of Evil” speech following the previous year’s attacks on the World Trade Centre, sparking a major shift in US policy towards the War on Terror. In pop culture, Toby Maguire’s performance in Spiderman laid the foundations for some of the highest-grossing Hollywood blockbusters of all time, while Kelly Clarkson’s success in the first-ever American Idol competition changed the face of reality TV and led to the fervent popularity of shows like *insert country*’s Got Talent and X-Factor.

Brazil won the World Cup so not everything changed, but one unexpected transfer grabbed international headlines and marked a turning point in the transfer policy of the modern-day Chinese Super League.

English footballing hero and all-round maverick Paul Gascoigne became the first foreign player to take his craft to China aged 36. It was a move that some newspapers saw as an opportunity for a troubled genius to finish his career in international adoration, while others labelled it as “smacking of desperation”. Gazza’s stint in the Guo, however brief, is worth investigating for two reasons: A - some important lessons can be learnt, and B - it’s bizarre. How did the midfield maestro go from the tears of Italia ‘90 and being worshipped by a nation, to fishing for koi carp in a Hainan hotel lobby using the Chinese version of a Jammy Dodger as bait?

The first foreign footballer to play in China

China, Meet Gazza

Gascoigne first touched down on Chinese soil during a pre-Euro ‘96 friendly at Gongti in Beijing, the home of Beijing Guoan. He described the noise in the stadium as “astonishing” and won man of the match following a goal and an assist. Standard procedure for the England number 8.

After shunning a trip to the Great Wall due to its distance from the hotel, Gazza and the rest of the England team travelled south to Hong Kong for another successful friendly. The win was followed by an infamous night out that involved some members of the squad, notably Gazza, Macca, Robbie Fowler and Teddy Sheringham, hitting a bar in Causeway Bay and having a go in ‘the dentist’s chair’ - a bar game in which hard liquor was poured into the open mouth of the bleary-eyed victim who was sat there. Needless to say, British media went to town upon the release of photos.

The tour was an opportunity for Chinese fans to see the two sides of Paul Gascoigne. A hedonistic idiosyncrasy that occasionally bordered on recklessness, combined with raw, unadulterated talent on a football pitch. He seemingly brushed off the vilification in the press through his famous celebration at Wembley not long after, but could this have been the start of a growing feeling of discontent with the way he was treated by the media at home? Chief propagator of anti-English footballer rhetoric The Sun used a headline of “DISGRACEFOOL” and branded Gascoigne a “drunken oaf” for his antics in Hong Kong - a tad harsh for a team enjoying some well-earned R&R before the first home tournament in 30 years.

As well as providing China with a glimpse of Gazza’s compelling unpredictability, perhaps the tour served as a reminder for himself that the Far East was a place he could still play the game and be adored by fans, but put significant distance between himself and the British media.

"That" famous celebration against Scotland at Wembley

Six Years Later

After mixed spells at Middlesbrough, Everton and Burnley, and a number of issues off the field, Gascoigne found himself on Hainan Island at a training camp for Liaoning Bodao. There were rumours that he was to finish his career in the English lowers leagues. Teams like Northampton, Exeter and Darlington were mentioned, but it was the tropical Chinese island that provided Gazza with his next challenge.

Things did not go well from the beginning. Poor performances during the trial and questions over fitness led the Chinese press to label him as “weak and clumsy,” and fellow teammates to question how a player like this had earned such a glittering reputation.

Gascoigne's Liaoning trial on Hainan Island

After refusing the club’s request to extend his trial, Gazza trained with recently formed second-tier team Gansu Tianma for three days and signed a contract with them worth £400,000.

This was akin to him completely falling off the map as far as the international football community was concerned. In today’s game, many big-name players will see out the final days of their careers in places like China or the Middle East and receive a more-than-healthy pay cheque for their trouble. But in 2002? And to a team that did not exist five years prior, playing football in the second tier of a country that many may have thought didn’t even have a second-tier league? Pretty unheard of.

Some background on Gansu - it’s a largely rural province located in the North West of China, whose capital city Lanzhou sits 1,500km west of Beijing and is most famous for Lanzhou Lamian (a noodle dish). The province is home to bountiful natural splendour but not much in the way of economic opportunity - mountains and deserts surround what used to be the Silk Road trade route that ran through the province. The ‘Tianma (天马)’ in Gansu Tianma translates as “heavenly horse”, referring to the most common mode of transport used on the route.

In his book, Gazza described Lanzhou as “the most polluted town in China…a bit like Gateshead used to be, but not as nice.”
Lanzhou on a good day

甲B开始了 - The Season Begins

While fans and the Chinese media wrestled with the novelty of the situation, club management and international critics adopted a more cynical, but arguably more realistic, approach to the transfer. Claims that Gascoigne's fitness wasn’t where it needed to be continued, although a hattrick during pre-season papered over some of the cracks.

The media scrum followed him to every game, paying large sums to Gansu in exchange for exclusive interviews with Gazza. They even recruited attractive, English-speaking female university students to conduct the interviews in an effort to make him feel more comfortable. 10,000+ fans convened at Wuhan’s Xinhua stadium for the season opener to catch a glimpse of the Englishman and he wasn’t even on the bench.

Gazza obliges an excited Chinese fan

Gascoigne’s debut against Qingdao Aokema was to be the jewel in the crown of his short Chinese career. He scored a great goal, assisted the second, and also won a penalty, leaving the pitch to a standing ovation with 5 minutes to go. His goal was classic Gascoigne - winning the ball in midfield, carrying it past two defenders, taking it to the edge of the box and eventually sticking it in the top corner, promptly removing his shirt afterwards. It was the moment everyone in the crowd was waiting for.

Cue pandemonium

Highs and Lows

The good times came to an abrupt end shortly after this moment. Language barriers meant that Gazza spent long periods on his own at hotels and couldn’t interact with his teammates. Well-documented struggles reared their heads again and after just three games in a Gansu shirt, it was decided with the club’s permission that he could leave China and go to Arizona for treatment.

It was also around this time that SARS cases were rising fast in Hong Kong and China. Whether it was down to fear of infection, a reluctance to be in isolation again far away from family and friends, or just because he wasn’t interested anymore, Gazza 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.”

His story is one that many modern footballers can learn from in today’s game. The media will hound high-profile players wherever they go, and this intense scrutiny combined with language barriers and constant loneliness can be a dangerous concoction. That being said, wage packets for international stars moving to China are so high today that they can afford to bring their whole family over if they are so inclined.

The story marks the beginning of a “let’s just throw money at stuff and hope it works” mentality within Chinese football, but perhaps the most important moral we can observe is how the limelight can drive a man to make unorthodox decisions. The British press has a lot to answer for when you look at how eager they are to chastise and bring down English players. Gazza gets drunk - the press has a field day; Sterling gets a gun tattoo - according to The Sun he’s supporting gun violence. There is a litany of tabloid overreactions to non-events involving English footballers, and while Gazza had many of his own issues that could have led to his decision to play in China, unfair defamation of character by tabloid newspapers can only have made things worse. In short, it won't come as a surprise to me if Raheem Sterling is playing for Heilongjiang Lava Spring in 2030.

A moment of happiness in a complicated journey

与众不同 - To be totally different from the crowd

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