Wandering the streets of the Chinatown-International District, Gustav Svensson finds something that he rarely enjoyed during his one-year spell in Guangzhou, China: space to walk.
“It was impossible to do anything on the weekends,” the 30-year-old recalled while walking under the Chinatown Gate on 5th and King St. “The malls were so crowded. You had to go into stores even when you didn’t want to buy anything, just to avoid the crowds.”
While mall visits in Guangzhou – the third- largest city in China with 15 million residents – presented throngs of people walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the Chinese Super League (CSL) bestowed an opportunity for Svensson to ply his trade in a market eager to become a global soccer powerhouse.
In January of 2016, while on duty with the Swedish National Team in Dubai, Svensson received a call from his agent stating interest from Guangzhou R&F F.C. Svensson soon boarded a flight to China where he toured the city and team facilities. He was convinced that China would be a good fit for him and his family. However, before signing, Svensson sought counsel from former Swedish National Team and Guangzhou R&F Head Coach Sven-Göran Eriksson on the inner workings of the CSL.
“I texted him just to make sure there was nothing I had missed,” Svensson said of his conversation with the 69-year-old Swede. “He liked it; he actually wanted to stay [with Guangzhou], but Shanghai (SIPG FC) offered him twice as much money so he couldn’t stay there, but he liked it and only had good things to say about the team.”
After four days in China, Svensson signed a three-year contract and moved into the same neighborhood where Eriksson had lived while coaching Svensson’s new team.
And so began a new life in a modern and bustling China for Svensson, his wife Sara and their baby son Charlie. They found home in a gated community full of foreigners and just so happened to become neighbors with Luiz Felipe Scolari, the famed Brazilian coach and current Head Coach of rival club Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao F.C.
The Svenssons decorated their new apartment with all IKEA products, of course, and settled in. They utilized a private driver to navigate the city and had a different driver, contracted by the club, to take Svensson
and other players to and from training and matches each week.
They vacationed in Vietnam, Hong Kong and the resort town of Sanya on the southern end of China’s Hainan Island.
Adjusting to life in China, the Svenssons came across new difficulties that could only be found in a country with the largest population on the planet.
There were lines just to get into the malls and onto interior elevators. Schedules had to be planned in advance, with the stipulation that any activities take place during off-hours to avoid large crowds.
“That was quite a big change coming from Sweden where everything is – not small, but it’s like a small city where everyone says hello to everybody and there are big parks with playgrounds and it’s very friendly,” Svensson said. “The community is built around having a lot of space and then you come to China and there’s no space at all and you walk into people everywhere you go.”
They even had to adjust to the persistent photo opportunities the Chinese sought with their blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby, Charlie. Chinese men and women frequently took Charlie from his stroller to take a photo.
At first, the Svenssons were alarmed, but eventually they grew to expect it as part of the culture and let it happen.
“They took a lot of pictures with my son. A lot,” said a smiling Svensson.
On top of the crowds and surprise photo ops, there was the adjustment to the hot and humid climate. It was often too warm to go to parks, so they went to the malls where they were protected with air conditioning. The weather became so unbearable that Sara and Charlie traveled back to Sweden for June, July and August.
Add in air pollution, where a convergence of population increase and industrialization has seen air quality diminish, and there were some uncomfortable moments for the Swedish family. Svensson admits that he thought the pollution was going to be worse, but recalled one match in Beijing where he truly felt the effects of the poor air quality.
“You go outside the hotel and you’re like, ‘Wow, I can just feel it,’” he said. “So, I think all of us went to the manager asking for more money after that game. It shortened our lives a couple of years.
“I’ve never taken a deep breath behind a car but I imagine it’s something like that. You don’t really want to breathe in fully.”
On the pitch, Svensson found the daily activities of a CSL team to be different than previous stops in his career.
The number of players attending training sessions would fluctuate from one day to the next and there was often uncertainty in who was going to show up. Players would arrive 30 minutes before training without the medical attention that they so often receive in other parts of the world, and then leave upon training’s completion. This allowed for Svensson to spend more time with his family than previously in his career.
Training sessions also presented language barriers between staff and players.
“Our coach (Dragan Stojković) spoke English and then we had interpreters speaking English to Chinese,” Svensson recalled. “We had a South Korean guy who has his own interpreter who didn’t speak English but spoke Chinese so it was from English to Chinese to South Korean. It was quite funny sometimes, but it worked out.”
In his lone season with Guangzhou, the club finished 6th with 40 points from 30 matches. The media coverage of the club was more or less insignificant and Svensson lived his daily life in relative anonymity. Ask Svensson if soccer is popular in China – even with the numerous, big-name players playing in the CSL – and he’s quick to say no.
“It’s growing but it’s not popular. The league is not that bad especially when you have as many good foreigners as they do. They tried to use the names of the bigger players as much as they could [to promote the sport].”
Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey, who credits former Sounder Erik Friberg and current VP of Soccer and Sporting Director Chris Henderson for bringing Svensson to Seattle, views the rising CSL as a competitor to MLS.
“They’ve obviously attracted a number of high-profile players,” he said. “It’s a league that pays very, very well and certainly a league that’s growing. It’s something that we need to worry about ourselves, honestly, and continue to develop domestic players in particular through our academies, through our player development. I think that’s the long-term solution for MLS.”
The quality-of-play is something frequently on the minds of Chinese soccer constituents as they constantly change the rules in attempt to accelerate the level of play, especially with their domestic players.
Case in point in January of this year when the CSL – just six weeks before the start of the new season – implemented a new rule limiting clubs the ability to field a maximum of three non-Chinese players per game. Previously, teams were able to field one non-Chinese player from the Asian confederation plus three non- Asian foreigners per match. Just like that, foreigners such as Svensson were dispensable.
“We were expecting to be there three years or at least one more year so that came as a surprise when we came back there and they just changed the rules,” Svensson said.
The rule change clearly benefitted the Sounders who were able to sign Svensson only a few weeks later, on January 30. Now filling all sorts of needs for the Rave Green, Svensson is comfortable in his new home in the Pacific Northwest. An easy-going personality, the seasoned veteran jokes that he can read Mandarin as he strolls by Hing Hay Park. He reads a street sign slowly to appear as though he doesn’t see the English lettering posted below.
Here in Seattle, Svensson can walk around casually and not be bumped into. There’s no expectation of someone picking up his child for a photo op. Simply put, there’s plenty of space to meander.
“You just feel that Seattle is a very good place to be.”
This piece is part of the June edition of Sounders Monthly. Available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central, this is a must-have on Sounders Matchday. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App. CLICK HERE to read the June edition. Photos by Jane Gershovich.