A dog's life in China for Matt
For a player who comes from a wholesome, southeast Queensland background, adapting to life in China has meant some major adjustments for Socceroo midfielder Matt McKay. If the changes in language and customs weren't enough at Changchun Yatai FC, the choices at dinner have certainly taken some getting used to.
"Dog was in the buffet at one of our hotels but I didn't try it," McKay said. "I'm not sure about a lot of the things I have eaten."
Strange menu selections aside, the 26-year-old Brisbane Roar favourite is enjoying his 4-month loan spell at the 2007 Chinese Super League champions. He's one of more than half a dozen players from the Hyundai A-League who is broadening his footballing education in Asia.
Breaking free of the A-League's strict salary cap, Australian players (and their clubs) can earn good money off shore, usually without the visa problems associated with a move to Europe. And Adelaide United's progression to last season's AFC Champions League final showcased the qualities of Aussie imports to Asian clubs who can often pick them up at bargain prices.
For McKay, who also went on-loan to Korean club Incheon United in 2006, it's a perfect way to keep playing beyond the A-League's comparatively short season.
And with the 2010 FIFA World Cup now just a little more than a year away, the Brisbane-born livewire is keen to get as much international experience as he can to keep alive his chances - albeit remote - of winning a squad place in Australia's crowded midfield ahead of their likely qualification for South Africa 2010.
Capped three times at senior level including the opening two games this year of the faltering Asian Cup qualifying campaign, McKay is desperate to move up in the Socceroo pecking order after being a standout for his club during a franchise-high 84 appearances over four seasons. He also represented his country at under-20 and under-23 level.
McKay's forays into Asia have partially made up for the Roar's puzzling inability so far to qualify for the AFC Champions League. Last season they missed out on the Grand Final - and a taste of Asian football - after losing 1-0 to the Reds from Adelaide in the Preliminary Final.
Changchun Yatai didn't make it to Asia this season - they finished sixth last year in Chinese Super League after winning the 2007 title - but have made a bright start to their domestic campaign to sit equal top with 14 points after seven games.
With a population of 7.5 million, the city of Changchun is in northeastern China - 860 kilometres from Beijing - and is the nation's car capital, producing 20 per cent of all Chinese automobiles (and half the passenger trains). Its nickname is China's Cincinnati, testimony to its industrial reputation.
A long way from home, McKay misses being able to easily communicate with the people around him - he says he doesn't even bother arguing with referees anymore because of the language barrier - but believes he'll come back a better player when his loan spell ends in July.
The Roar - re-branded as the Brisbane Roar for the new season - will open their campaign with a Suncorp Stadium blockbuster against new-boys, Gold Coast United on August 8th. The North Queensland Fury, with ex-Liverpool favourite Robbie Fowler as their marquee player, are also joining the competition to make it three A-League clubs from the Sunshine State.
Changes behind the scenes at the Roar - CEO Lawrence Oudendyk resigned last month and Football Federation Australia bought a controlling stake in the club - were on his mind as McKay sat down to speak with ESPN Soccernet. And the prospect of facing Gold Coast and North Queenland in the first month of the season gives the former Brisbane Grammar School student - whose father and brother are dentists - reason to smile.
Q: Hello Matt, or should I say, ni hao ma? ('How are you?') How's life in China?
A: It's good. I've settled in well, slowly adapting to a different environment and culture. We started the season okay, have a run of home games now so hopefully we can continue to climb up the ladder.
Q: How does the Chinese Super League compare to the Hyundai A-League?
A: It's hard to compare. There are some similarities like the physical nature of the game but there are a lot of differences. There are a lot of stoppages in play. There seems to be fouls left, right and centre, and the stretcher must come on at least 10 times a game. I've also learnt I can't talk or argue with referees, especially since they can't speak English.
But, like Australia, there are some really good players, both Chinese and foreigners.
Q: What was your thinking when it came to taking another loan spell rather than having time off followed by a pre-season in Brisbane?
A: I always said the season in Australia is too short. That's why I have been hoping to get a loan deal in the off-season for the past few years. I'm 26 now and want to play as many games as I can: 21 is just too few. However, with the league expanding to 10 teams, it's great, especially in Queensland. I can't wait for those fixtures (against the other Queensland sides).
Q: What are your thoughts on the developments at your A-League club while you've been away including the CEO stepping down and the name change?
A: Yeah, it's interesting sitting over here and hearing and reading all the reports. A lot has changed and hopefully the club will continue to progress forward with the new people joining us. It's a great club and I'm sure whoever comes on board in the future will do a great job.
Q: How do you feel the disappointing home 1-0 loss to Kuwait impacted on your future Socceroo chances?
A: A loss is a loss. It wasn't a great game. We were given an opportunity to perform and as a team collectively we didn't take that chance. Everyone involved would love another chance to win games but qualification is the most important thing and whoever is chosen will have to do a job.
Q: What chance do you give yourself making the Socceroo squad for the 2010 World Cup?
A: I'm a bit down in the pecking order. But first of all you have to be playing games, and I'm doing that. It's over a year away and a lot can happen in that time but I want to be playing well and if a chance comes I will be ready.
Q: What's the strangest thing you've eaten in China - and what do you miss most about Queensland?
A: Mate, I'm not sure what a lot of the things I have eaten. Dog was in the buffet at one of our hotels, but I didn't try it. Easy for what I miss about Australia: the food and the English language.
Australian-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.