|A Journal From China
Monday morning, August 2, 2015
What a sight to see, this full squad of BU15 players, coaches and Heat personnel kitted out in blue Adidas track suits at two in the morning in the Walmart parking lot in Escondido, destination Dalian, China.
Our two photographers Marie Wouters and Reagan Yorke were busy documenting our journey already.
We travelled by bus to LAX and checked in on time with Alaska Air, only to find that they had overbooked our flight. We were passed off to Delta and American where the whole group was divided into three groups. Already our finely tuned plans were challenged.
However, we were still on the same time schedule and would all meet on the same flight connection from Shanghai to Dalian. But, the problems caused by dividing the group into three were numerous. Some parents were separated from their children and the Heat personnel were also divided unfavorably. This left some of the players traveling alone having to be chaperoned by a traveling parent rather than a Heat official. Also, most of the groups were seated on a 13 hour flight separated from each other. Needless to say we will be lodging a complaint with Alaska Air when we return.
Luckily this group of 37 people had some very competent and intelligent individuals who were able to carry out the needed tasks at hand. Denyce Cooper, our president, was able to successfully negotiate a satisfactory conclusion with three airlines, thereby allowing us all to meet on time in Shanghai.
Hard to believe that as I am writing this, our group of eight are 6 hours into our 13 hour flight over the Pacific, with the two other planes trailing behind us by one hour, destination Shanghai.
Nevertheless this whole squad of players and accompanying parents and personnel refused to stop smiling, and still remained positive and hopeful of this life changing trip.
And just to add to this, when the first plane landed in Shanghai, the middle one was delayed and then overtaken by the third plane only to leave our baggage and kids in three separate locations.
Very impressed with the Shanghai airport buildings though, which were gigantic with an almost science fiction, futuristic look about them.
On our way to Dalian, 40 minutes behind schedule with missing bags, but all players, personnel and parents were on board.
We survived the bumpy landing in pouring rain at 11.45 pm. Dalian airport was sparse with people by the time we collected our luggage. We were missing five bags and had to also deal with the loss of one passport, which was later found in the pocket of one of our players.
Our own personal twin-deck bus met us and transported us to the hotel where rooms were allocated. One adult and two players to a room. By the time everyone had gone to bed for some much needed rest, Coach Roger, DOC Steve and Denyce ironed out plans for the following day. It was 2 am.
Because China is 15 hours ahead, we lost at least one day in traveling. We left early Sunday morning and arrived in Dalian on Monday night. Tuesday is our first real day in China.
DAY 1 in Dalian – Tuesday
The players and coaches met sporadically at 8.30 am in a screened off section of the hotel’s dining room. We were fortunate to have a Chinese western chef who set out a buffet of typical American food minus the pancakes. However, quite unexpectedly, our players had a “When in Rome” attitude and sampled the Chinese traditional breakfast of noodles, rice, pickled things and various dishes never before seen. Duck eggs were not a favorite.
The rooms were comfortable and the hotel staff were eager to please. Very few hotel personnel spoke English and the one’s that did had a tough time understanding us. Nevertheless we were certainly spoiled already.
Mr. Wei Zhang, FC Heat’s VP for overseas affairs and our main sponsor met with us to iron out our itinerary.
Roger, Steve, Denyce and Wei attended a very formal 20+ course lunch in the Hawaiian Gardens area of Dalian, hosted by the Dalian Congress. At this lunch we shared introductions and were given a detailed history and modern day explanation of Dalian, a city of 7 million people, with its main export being petroleum products and shipping it’s main occupation. We in turn shared our descriptions of California, San Diego, Escondido, and FC Heat. We made many diplomatic friends who, like us, were eager to solidify this cultural exchange and city to city relationship moving forward.
Meanwhile back in camp our boys, chaperoned by parents, walked the streets of this fantastic city to meet the locals. Chinese people were as anxious to meet us as we them and were insistent that we pose for photographs. Teenage boys took an instant liking to Steve Yorke’s daughter Reagan, who was the only teenage girl in the party. Had they charged for photographs the Yorke family would be rich at the end of this trip.
Our photographers were able to flash photographs and messages across the world to our network of families via the online app “WhatsApp,” which calmed the nerves of the non-traveling parents at home in Escondido.
After dinner in our own private dining room, our party of 37 boarded the bus and headed for the train station for our 10 hour sleeper train journey to Beijing and The Great Wall. The station was crazy busy.
|Sleeper train compartments – 2 up & 2 down
Each compartment of the train car slept 4 people and our group were scattered haphazardly throughout one train car. It reminded me of the old British Rail days. We all adapted well and were able to get to our destination with a little rest. DOC Steve was allocated a bunk in a separate train car with what looked like 3 Chinese escaped prisoners already stripped down to boxers and ready for bed, needless to say, Steve declined and we found room for him in the Heat carriage by shuffling people around.
Day 2 in Beijing – Wednesday
Beijing is a city of 23 million people with 6 million cars on the road, in fact in order to alleviate the congestion, it is law that if the number plate on your car ends with an even number, you can only drive on certain days of the week, and an odd number allows the opposite.
We arrived early morning and our guide Leo Ge was waiting for us with a bus and 2 boxes of McDonald’s Big Macs and bottles of coke, and he laughed when our teenage players devoured theirs in three bites.
It took approximately 2 hours to get to The Great Wall by bus and while weaving dangerously past other vehicles, it became increasingly evident that Beijing City has a problem with traffic congestion no matter what government safeguards are in place. On weekends when all 6 million cars are allowed on the road, the city traffic crawls to a standstill.
Good news arrived via text that the airline had found the last of our bags and a roar erupted inside the bus.
When The Great Wall came into sight, the boys were eager for some exercise. With the heat they were also eager for an ice lolly or ice cream, but we had to refuse them because the water that is contained in the making of these products is contaminated with bacteria, which our western bodies cannot handle. We could not afford to have anyone fall sick with diarrhea, so unfortunately water only today.
To think that you could stroll up the walkways on top of The Great Wall is a complete misnomer as some portions are almost vertical. We carried our Escondido Heat flag and headed west, our goal to reach the top tower. All of our coaches and boys made it with considerable effort, but many parents had to turn back. Constantly we were stopped, either as a group or individually, for photographs with the nationals who thought our western features were unusual and interesting, which goes to show the lack of western visitors to this part of the world. Nevertheless, the Chinese people were very gracious and welcoming to all of us.
|Team photo on The Great Wall
Just after 10 am the coaches and parents limped, and the boys ran to the bus to venture out for lunch on the second floor of the Cloisonne pottery factory, who make famous copper decorated ware. We toured the factory floor first, where mainly women worked by hand on decorating vases and jewelry. Most of the work was so intricate that workers were working with tiny tools just inches away from their eyes.
Lunch was a typical Chinese meal served on large round tables with a big lazy Suzanne in the center. They were whizzing around so fast on the player’s tables that the food became a blur. Either way the boys wolfed it all down.
Our next stop was the Temple of Heaven about 30 minutes away, where we learned about some of the ancient rituals of the Chinese people and their Emperors.
After 2 hours here we had again built up an appetite, so Leo took us by bus to the famous 5 story Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing, which is world famous for the cooking of duck and the way in which it is presented. They did not disappoint as the food was exquisite and the portions were never ending.
Our guide then took us back to the Beijing Railway Station where the crowds were shoulder to shoulder and moving in waves. We stayed somewhat together, our flag aloft, in our previously prepared small groups with parent and coach chaperons. Passports and tickets were needed to enter.
I write this at four in the morning on my sleeper train bunk during the ten hour train trip back to Dalian. And as I recall the details, I am thinking about what a truly memorable and remarkable experience this is, not only our boys, but for everyone in our party. To think that all the peaceful Chinese people want to do is to get close to us. Already it seems that we all have adopted a mutual feeling of love, respect and brotherhood during this cultural visit. But, we can’t wait to get back to Dalian and get a ball at our feet.
Day 3 – Dalian, Thursday
Pouring rain in Dalian today, but in this city it seems everyone is prepared with an umbrella. Our bus returned us to the hotel where we immediately hit the breakfast buffet. Today is a day for relaxation and re-acclamation after our whirlwind trip. A light indoor practice is scheduled for 3 pm this afternoon.
|Team arriving at Dalian Stadium Complex
Our bus took us to the Dalian Sports Stadium Complex, which consists of three massive stadiums, the largest one for soccer, which comfortably seats 50,000 and is the stadium where we will hopefully play all our games. Also part of this complex is the indoor activity center, as big as a soccer field, which incorporates 2 basketball courts and three soccer fields, with polished wood floors.
On one of the many open soccer fields surrounding the stadium a tournament was being played between 6 teams to find the top 3 teams who would then play us for The Friendship Cup.
The boys were excited to hit the indoor court for some futsal type games during our two hour session. They were obviously a little rusty, but it did not take long for them to settle into their usual pattern. We started with easy stretching and warm up and then breaking into 3 teams, round robin, 7-a-side. This was followed by attacking and defending exercises followed by two courts of 5-a-side. The boys were looking sharp by the end of the session and even the coaches got a run around.
Our guide and the stadium staff gave us a tour of the soccer stadium and presented us with 6 soccer balls.
Going through the front entrance of the stadium, which was guarded by a police officer, we were in awe of the spotlessness of the highly polished tile floors and the sheer enormity of the facility itself. We were led through to the locker rooms, physio area and showers, back out to the main lobby and to the player’s entrance to the field.
The playing area is enormous, which the bowl like stands towered over. The boys were open mouthed and decided to do a Heat cheer in the center circle. The Plexiglas covered benches on the sideline could easily seat a second team.
We thanked the staff and headed for the hotel. It looked like the skies were about to open up as thunder was heard in the distance. We arrived back just in time for dinner as the monsoonal rain hammered down on the pavement, and onto the thousands of people walking and driving during rush hour throughout the city.
Day 4 – Dalian, Friday
Breakfast at 7.15 am everyone present with only one player feeling a little under the weather. We will certainly keep an eye on him.
No rain as of yet so hopefully our scheduled 10 am practice will be on grass. Steve Yorke will be analyzing our opponents today in one of the tournament play-off games while the Heat squad will practice with Coach Roger and assistant Robbie Jeffers.
We were joined on the bus to the stadium complex by Lou Zhang, Wei’s brother, who played center-forward for the Chinese national team in the Olympics. He told us stories about being coached at some point by Alex Ferguson from Manchester United. He helped us on the training field, coaching the forwards.
We were able to watch Beijing play their opponents, who in the first-half were second best. They started with a 4-3-3 formation which cost them the midfield and they went 1-0 down to a team playing 4-4-2. Once the coach adjusted to a 4-1-3-2 they quickly dominated and were 2-1 up at the half. Steve took many notes on individual players and their team tactics.
There are four game officials who are very strict, especially with coaching areas and spectators getting within 20 feet of the sideline. Games will be 40 minute halves with National Cup rules regarding substitutes, meaning once you pull a player off, they cannot go back on. This alone will have an effect on our strategies and playing time for players.
In the afternoon the Heat coaches were taken by car back to the stadium to watch the winner of the tournament Chengdu, play a friendly against a team a year older. Chengdu are a well balanced team with a strong keeper, good back four and stable midfield, but their forwards did not show much in the game we watched, probably because they were playing a 4-2-3-1 formation. The score at half-time when we left was 0-0.
After dinner we had a team meeting that lasted for 1.5 hours. We had noticed some weak spots on the Chengdu team, especially when they defend corners. We talked about how we could take advantage of these and how to take control of the midfield. Early night for the boys. So far only two had come down with diarrhea after breaking the rules and purchasing slurpee type drinks during the day at the city aquarium.
We were informed that tomorrow’s game would be televised in China and streamed over the Internet.
Day 5 – Dalian, Saturday
The Championship Game was scheduled for 9.30 am this morning, so we rose early and ate breakfast at 6.30 am. We got ready and met the bus that took us to the stadium. The skies were cloudy and on the news this morning there was talk about a typhoon that was expected to hit Taiwan, and be over mainland China by late today, heading for Shanghai. We were obviously looking at rainy weather today.
The bus actually drove into the stadium and we were led to the player’s entrance. The stadium was decorated with huge balloons and a stage and placards had been erected on the running track. There were approximately 12 teams on the grass warming up and doing little displays for the couple of hundred spectators. We were told we could go out and warm-up as were our opponents. After taking the team through some warm-up exercise we moved on to passing and moving activities. That was when thunder boomed and the sky opened up. The torrential rain was here to stay, so the previous day’s tournament final presentations were moved indoors.
As the floodlights were turned on, the TV channel conducted many interviews as did attending sports magazines and newspaper reporters. Our own Denyce Cooper presented the Mayor of Dalian our appreciation award
|Coach Roger interviewed by TV crew
which we had carried with us. Then word came to us that our game was postponed for 4 to 5 hours, or until this storm had passed. Back to the bus and to the hotel.
The game was rescheduled to 3.30 pm and was moved from the main stadium to a turf field. The Chengdu team was 5 players different than the team we had scouted the previous day and much stronger in midfield. They had obviously rested their main starters yesterday. Our players were not as match ready as theirs and they were beating us to the ball nearly every time. After 12 minutes a poor clearance from one of our defenders resulted into a deflected goal against. At half time we shuffled players around and created five chances of our own but failed to capitalize. Then, with 15 minutes to go their central defender was red carded for pulling down our breakaway center-forward just outside the penalty area. But again, we were unable to take advantage. We did make 8 substitutions in the second half, but the score stood and Chengdu became international champions. Credit to them for a great performance who we thought were the better team overall.
They were presented with a beautiful trophy made of Chinese pottery. Lou Xhang gave us a gift of a small vase from the Ming Dynasty, 600 years old. We presented him with a Heat shirt, a signed soccer ball, a Heat and a Calsouth pennant.
Day 6 Dalian, Sunday
Boys had a lie-in this morning as breakfast was from 6 am until 9 am. The game today is against Beijing and set for 2 pm in the main stadium and would be televised. To kill some time, we decided to roam the streets and visit the mall. A party of 37 crossing high streets in this major city is harder than you would think. There are no rules for protecting pedestrians, it almost seems like the drivers aim for you. Boys found an American candy store and spent some time in a Burger King.
Today the weather is hot and humid, but that can change in an instant. We arrived at the stadium, which was even hotter, completed our warm-ups, drank plenty of water and returned to the changing rooms. I went and met our opponents coach and gave him gifts from Heat and Calsouth.
Prior to the start of the game the teams and the officiating crew were presented and the game got under way. We held our own for the first 15 minutes until Beijing took the lead from a ball put through from the left. Then in the next 5 minutes the unthinkable happened. We made a critical error in the back-line and their center-forward stole the ball and beat the keeper. One minute later a similar error, with the same player breaking through with only the keeper to beat and our sweeper pulled him down in the area. Last man, goal scoring opportunity, penalty and red card. 3-0 down twenty minutes into the game and down to ten men. We pulled off a forward and put on a midfield player and played through to the half-time whistle, holding our own.
Second-half we started out much differently after we re-adjusted our boys and giving the team talk. Ten minutes in we pulled one back, a screamer from 25 yards out by Imanol and so we continued to press, and five minutes later we hit their crossbar.
We just seemed to be having a hard time with the second goal, so we took a chance and pushed forward. Their center-forward broke through again and again we pulled him down in the area. Last man, another red card, down to nine and a penalty.
1-4 final score. Beijing were by far the better team.
The boys worked very hard under very difficult circumstances and they never gave up. The teams we are playing are ranked in the top 20 in China and they are great teams. But it is the small details that make a big difference at this level.
After the game, coach Roger Rolim de Moura made the best speech I have ever heard to a defeated team. In it he said, “I am not going to lie to you and tell you that the mistakes didn’t cost us, they did. But you are young players and you are going to make mistakes, it is only natural and and how we grow as human beings, so we all shall learn from them. Character is built from how you handle and deal with those mistakes.
“I have heard people say, I love you, to someone until that person makes a mistake in life and then they say they don’t love them anymore. That is wrong. We as coaches are very proud of what you have achieved and will always support you no matter what. Tomorrow is another day boys!”
Tomorrow we play Dalian, a team one year older than us and as good as the teams we have already played.
Day 7 Dalian, Monday
The game was on one of the turf fields in the sports complex. We kicked off at 10 am after gift exchanges and team presentations. Immediately we knew that this was a different type of opposition with their players rolling around on the grass and diving for free-kicks, it was obviously in their game plan and we stood open mouthed as free-kick after free-kick was given against us. Our keeper had difficulty on one of these phantom free-kicks and we found ourselves a goal down.
Up until this game I was somewhat impressed with the officiating, but this crew were very poor. Two minutes later we lost our central defender who was stretchered off and taken by ambulance to the hospital with suspected concussion.
We pulled the goal back at 35 minutes and we could see Dalian tiring. Extra time added was one minute by the sideline official even though it took ten minutes for our central defender to be removed from the field. In the second half we continued to press until the ref gave Dalian a penalty from nowhere. None of us could quite understand what it was for. We were 1-3 down a few minutes later from yet another free-kick that wasn’t.
With 20 minutes to go we decided to play all of our players to share in the experience. At the end of the game after sternly voicing our opinion to the organizers and the officiating crew, we swallowed our pride. We shared in the presentation of the 3rd place pottery trophy and gifted each one of the Dalian players with an FC Heat soccer ball. We even gave the referees Calsouth pins.
|Coach Rob, Coach Roger, DOC Steve, Lou Zhang
& President Denyce Cooper
After the game boys and families returned to the hotel and devoured lunch, while Roger, Denyce and Steve paid a visit to one of our sponsors, The Ocean Island Seafood Company. We presented our sponsorship plaque to the president, Mr. Wang Jun in their corporate offices seventeen stories above the city of Dalian. We talked about future sponsorship and the possibility of hosting Chinese children in San Diego.
We shot over to the main hospital where Dre our central-defender was under observation. Hospitals in China are very much like hospital wards were in England in the 50’s. Nine to a very unsanitary room with unsophisticated equipment. The Chinese government gave a whole room to our patient who just wanted to get back to the hotel. His MRI was clear and we took him back to the hotel in readiness for our flight home tomorrow.
Tonight after dinner we were able to watch the Beijing game on widescreen TV, only to find out that one of our red cards was a perfectly timed tackle, the slow motion replay shows our sweeper got the ball and nothing but the ball.
I take it back about decent officiating in our games.
In the evening Steve took a few of the boys down Russia street, which is adjacent to our hotel. This is an area where people have stalls selling all manner of goods. Some people cook squid, sea slugs and other sea creatures, while others fly drones, paint Chinese letters and symbols on the pavement and sell all sorts of swap meet quality products. The boys purchased necklaces for their girlfriends and laser lights for themselves. Steve used the street pavement painter’s brush to write ‘Peace” and “Love” which was met by many smiles from the locals.
The boys juggled a feathered contraption with a street vendor, while others took photographs of Chinese girls. Chinese families pointed us westerners out to their children and smiled when we shook their hands.
Steve, Reagan and 5 boys were invited into the house-style store of a young Chinese artist trying to make a living. Her English was excellent, which made a refreshing change and the boys loved her.
Russian influence in China is obvious. A store and some offices around the corner from our hotel are owned by Russian companies. Cameras above the street are constantly taking photographs of every car that passes their buildings. These people are definitely concerned about security here. They are reluctant to talk to westerners and stare as though they mean trouble.
Before turning in for the night I reminisce, recalling the events and experiences we have all shared during this past week or so. To think we have done so much in so little time and played soccer and made new friends in a place very few Americans frequent.
|Making friends on Russia Street
The games were challenging, no doubt about it, but we expected no less and we competed well. We were playing teams that are equivalent of National Cup finalists and who were very organized and well disciplined. Their coaching staff and squad strength also showed this. But we are very proud of this FC Heat BU15 team who are still growing and improving daily. They gave it their all, and the icing on the cake was that we were able to play everyone in the squad while doing so.
|The team as it was presented to the media
in front of VIP officials
Thinking about this adventure, the many faces jump back into my mind. Our boys faces full of intrigue, trying to understand a different way of life. And the faces of Chinese children holding their parents hands and smiling when we wave.
This is not just about soccer. This is about building a peaceful relationship with a people who are as anxious to understand our world as we are theirs. We are not that far apart. We take care of our children just as they do theirs, and as a new generation is born, we all are becoming more trusting, peaceful and friendly with one another. This world needs more of that.
Soccer is the vehicle in which we all ride.