We've hardly been in China for a week and I have seen and experienced so much for the first time, it could easily have already been a month. My coaching team and I have visited so many countries in the past and we've worked for years in Spain, Italy and England. But this experience is like no other.
Millenia of culture and tradition
We are in a country with thousands of years of cultural heritage and traditions that condition behaviour that you notice from the first moment you step foot into China.
Obviously the first thing is the language. All of the foreigners we have met have told us how hard Mandarin is to learn. Watching a documentary about the country on the plane on the way over, I was struck by many factors which stood out, including the respect Chinese have for their elders, and their teachers, who explain what life is about and show how to write the language. Chinese calligraphy is almost an art form and to write accurately and quickly requires a great deal of learning. To see people writing in person since I arrived has been fascinating.
Reading up a little on the Chinese culture I also discovered that they not only created the Great Wall, or invented gunpowder, but also are responsible for a host of other things including paper, wheelbarrows and even pasta! Marco Polo brought pasta back with him when he returned from visiting China and over the years it has become synonymous with Italian cuisine. The Great Canal which unites the Yangste and Huai rivers is an engineering achievement that rivals the Great Wall for its complexity, ambition and utility.
Well, as they say in Spanish - "otro mundo", it's another world, and I hope to continue to discover it bit by bit and share with those who wish to hear about our experiences in China.
Since the moment of our arrival we have really been touched by the kindness and respect that we have been shown. Our hosts have treated us with great consideration and are always keen to make us happy. As we all know from experience, in football, just as in everyday life, when people show you respect and affection and do everything they can to make things easier for you, life is much happier, even when you face difficult moments. I must say that I have had more meetings with the Chairman, the President and the General Manager this week, than I had in 3 years at Newcastle. They haven't just been work meetings, rather signs of respect in which we have been able to appreciate the differences and similarities in our cultures.
Day to day work
Before leading a training session or managing a match I have found some challenges that I haven't experienced in the other countries where I have worked or visited.
When you go to play overseas with your team you have translators with you but of course you address your team directly - either you speak their language, or they understand yours. Obviously here this isn't the case. Most of the players and the people around you don't understand anything you say and vice versa, so you need a translator by your side at all times, even to transmit the smallest correction in training. And it's not just me, but all my assistants need translators too, so at times as I have joked with my friends from the media in Newcastle, it can seem like a scene from the Marx Brothers with so many people around!
Getting to know Dalian
Dalian is a costal city that has gone through a rapid process of modernisation. In our first few days many new buildings have caught our attention, along with the Xinghai Square, Asia's largest plaza, the cleanliness of the streets and and the incredible network of motorways linking the airport to the hotel and the training ground. The people here are proud of having the best shellfish in China and the wild cherries gown here at this time of year are also delicious.
Going back to communication, if you don't have WeChat, the most important social platform in China, you're lost. You need WeChat to communicate, send photos, text and voice messages, but above all to pay for things. Nobody here needs cash or cards - just their phones. With your mobile you can do your daily shopping, pay taxi drivers and restaurants. The challenge here is that it's in Mandarin, so you need the translator again, who is always by my side.
The language barrier
As you can imagine the first bit of advice that you get from foreigners working here, or those that have worked here in the past, isn't that you should sign a good striker, rather that you should sign a great translator. A good translator can relate your ideas clearly to the players. The translator doesn't just need to know your language (mine speaks English) but also needs to know football in order to transmit the real meaning of what you want to communicate.
So far I have met with the person responsible for building the new training ground, the Team Manager, the kit man and the driver, and of course the translator who is always with me. The most complicated aspect of my daily work are the training sessions (we've only had five so far), where every exercise, explication and correction depends on a translator - and as I said before, not just for me, but for my whole staff. We have three translators so far and are looking for more, as all the help we can get in this area will be fundamental.
So as not to go on too much in the first instalment of sharing my experiences in China, I'll finish with some comments on our first match.
Firstly, I'd like to congratulate the players as it's not easy to adjust to a new coaching staff. We beat Henan Jianye 3-1 and I can tell you that the experience was really strange. You can't transmit what you want directly to the players, as it has to go through a translator. If you shout, he has to shout too and you have to trust that he's getting across what you want. At least with the foreign players we can speak in English, Spanish or in the case of Marek in Italian, even though he already knows what is required from our time together at Napoli. But the translator can't be at your side the whole time during the match as the fourth official tells him to sit down. So I find myself alone, using gesticulations to try to get across the adjustments I want from the players. Like I said, this is nothing like my previous experiences.
To end I'll share a little experience from my first match. When the game ended I walked onto the pitch to shake hands with the ref as I used to in England (when I wasn't angry) and was quickly told to come back as this is forbidden in China. I had to wait for all the players to shake hands with each other and the referees in the centre circle, then for our players to walk around the pitch thanking the fans - who are excellent and really get behind the team, as this is a club with a solid football tradition and many past trophies. As I said at the beginning - just seven days... one week... what an experience so far!