It’s 6:30 a.m. on Thursday 26th May and I’m about to be picked up. The builders nearby are annoyingly going about their work in a noisy manner. My Shanghainese wife (boss) kindly arranged my transport via a driver who was also heading to Chongming Island. I was told the journey could take up to two hours and as the summit was due to start at 9:00 a.m., leaving this early seemed as safe a move as a helmet wearing pedestrian – excessively protected but still exposed to traffic.
I made a late application for the summit in search of opportunities within a sport that I have an unnatural commitment towards. You only have to ask my better half who complains about the brightness of my tablet at 3:00 a.m. when I’m watching a game with my earphones plugged-in. She thinks the football season is over, but I’m planning to use our belated ‘wedding’ photo-shoot in mid-June as a bargaining chip when it comes to informing her about the Euros. Marriage tip: It’s all about compromise and tactical planning.
My driver seemed nice and friendly, largely because he allowed me to extend my sleep in the back with little interruption. I did, however, open my eyes when we were on the 16.5km Shanghai Yangtze River Bridge. Despite the foggy surroundings, it felt pretty long given the speed at which we were travelling – Ellie Goulding’s music providing a natural catalyst for any wannabe Lewis Hamiltons.
As a result of the inspiring playlist, we arrived at the Convention Center before 8:00 a.m. With an hour to spare, I went through the schedule, took some photos and awaited the first of many presentations as guests from China and abroad filtered into the room.
One of the first speakers was none other than the Grandfather of Chinese football and supporter of tinted glasses, Xu Genbao. He discussed the sheer effort and money required to make an academy as successful as his. The Genbao Football Academy has produced 40 players who have played in the Chinese Super League (CSL), including current stars Wu Lei of Shanghai SIPG (formerly East Asia) and Zheng Linpeng of Guangzhou Evergrande – who has been linked with both Chelsea and Leicester in the last year.
After the morning break, there was a panel discussion about football in China, its pros and cons as well as what the guests’ have learnt from their own experiences. It was interesting to hear their views with many reaffirming my own impressions of what obstacles stand in China’s way in order to succeed on the world stage.
During lunch I realised that it doesn’t matter how far away from home I am, it will always catch up with me. As the waitresses insisted we sat on the front tables, I found myself next to three gentlemen representing Southampton Football Club. They know some of my friends and former colleagues from my last job in England which I left for Shanghai over four-years ago. Naturally these guys were polite, pleasant and easy to talk to because that’s how we southern fairies roll.
The afternoon saw a greater focus on the digital and social media side of things. This seemed particularly relevant to a generation obsessed with their phones and self (see a photo I took recently titled: You’re An Idiot).
I left at 5:45 p.m. to take a two-hour journey home while the other guests and visitors headed to the nearby hotel.
I opted to allow myself an extra 30-minutes in bed having arrived an hour early the previous day.
It was a different driver this time and it didn’t take long for me to learn that he wasn’t local. It did, however, take three and a half hours to confirm how unfamiliar he was with this particular route.
This man was nice and friendly despite the fact he seemed intent on exposing my lack of Mandarin for the majority of what became an unexpectedly long journey.
I was led to believe that the route he took would require hopping over a narrow stretch of water after he showed me his satnav. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise it was bridgeless so arriving to board a boat to ferry us across came as a slight surprise.
The driver – with a face of shock and surprise like he’d just seen a foreigner in a third-tier Chinese city – informed me that it would take over an hour on the boat, which meant I would be missing the first three speeches.
I tried to call my wife to confirm that this was the case and seek an alternative route if it saved time. Typically, she was unable to pick up her phone when I needed to speak to her, despite the bloody thing being glued to her hand most of the time. So there I sat as the only foreigner on the boat with a foggy horizon and my own frustrations providing the next hour’s entertainment.
I arrived at the Convention Center at 10:30 a.m. with the first coffee break due to commence any minute. The driver to his credit insisted that I didn’t pay the agreed £10 but I felt bad for him, as he too was late, so I insisted he accepted half the fare.
Now a sharp thinker at such an event would have put my absence down to an important morning meeting. But my honesty insisted that I tell everyone I was sat on a boat for the last hour. I did also discourage them of this route, not that it was going to be a consideration for their more informed drivers.
The blow of being late was compounded after discovering that I missed a presentation malfunction that included the audience being asked, “How Deep Is Your Love?” The slow, sensual tunes of the Bee Gees in the background are only for the world’s true romantics and Alan Pardew.
Putting my disappointment to one side, I continued to meet approachable and interesting people as further Q&A sessions and speeches were delivered. There was a refreshingly direct presentation by a University Professor with regards to the history and future of Chinese football.
For the last part of the afternoon, we were invited for a tour around the Genbao Academy. So we hopped onto a coach with particularly violent brakes and went to see what all the fuss was about.
We were greeted by members of staff from the Academy, with many a photo taken of the lanyard wearing foreigners. After a quick look around the small museum/display room, we went to the indoor artificial pitch. The quality of the surface didn’t seem too dissimilar to what the local stadiums use (and often have to repair due to its poor quality and the effects of weather). A game was taking place between the Academy’s current students who appeared to be under instructions to avoid the corner of the pitch where we were standing. The Brits amongst us were disappointed to see a lack of percentage football and dearth of balls into the mixer.
We then headed for the grass pitches outside. Unfortunately, there were more mushrooms than even Mario could handle, but in their defence, there weren’t any markings so it’s probably (hopefully) the off-season. Unless those mushrooms were part of the students’ diet.
A customary pitch photo brought the event to a close as I awaited my pick-up from the hotel. Those who still had a night to kill were bemoaning the isolated location with one guest superbly comparing the area to Shutter Island. It was definitely an environment without distractions for teenage boys looking to become professional footballers. It was probably what motivated Wu Lei to make his professional debut before the age of 15.
Generally, it was an enjoyable and enlightening couple of days, which will definitely prompt future articles for this blog. Don’t get too excited.