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Chinese Super League clubs seek good fortune in sun, sand and style of southern Spain

Javier Mascherano’s Hebei are one of over 100 clubs to converge on the region in a bid to spice up their preseason training

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 8:02am

Javier Mascherano left Barcelona for Hebei China Fortune at the end of January, but he didn’t leave Spain.

The Chinese Super League side, who finished sixth last season, are one of several Chinese clubs who’ve done their preseason in Spain, in their case a mammoth 47-day stretch in Marbella.

Tianjin Teda, Shanghai Shenhua, Shanghai Shenxin and Guizhou Hengfeng also travelled to southern Spain, along with over 100 other teams from around the globe.

Russia’s Spartak Moscow, who Hebei beat last week in Mascherano’s debut game – when the Argentinian ran the show for Manuel Pellegrini’s side – are there.

As are Ukranians Dynamo Kiev, who Mascherano played against in his second game. Hebei lost 2-1, but a year ago, they lost 5-1. Mascherano has already made an improvement.

Though there are other football centres, Marbella has become football’s winter training capital, with teams attracted to the world class facilities and the milder, sunnier weather of Iberia.

From Scandinavian sides escaping the cold to big name clubs from further south, they take advantage of fine pitches and hospitality facilities in a country where tourism is the biggest business and superb hotels are otherwise underutilised in January.

The trips, usually lasting a week, offer a change of scene, team bonding and the novelty of training on a beach, while coaches use the opportunity to let younger players experience travelling with the first team or to weigh up trialists.

Marbella’s fashionable status means it can also attractive to the marquee players: “There are far worse places to come to in the world than here,” smiled Dimitar Berbatov, a star foreign player for Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters, who were in Marbella in October.

Along with his former Manchester United teammate Wes Brown, they spent their preseason based in a hotel overlooking the sea near Marbella.

Having previously coached at nearby Malaga, it’s an area Hebei coach Pellegrini, who speaks to his players in English, is very familiar with and he keeps a home there.

“There’s a very strong European link with a lot of the coaches,” explains Christian Machowski of Euro Sport & Event Management, which organises trips for clubs from their Manchester and Malaga bases.

“Pellegrini knows the area, he’s a great coach and very well organised. I’ve listened to a few of his training talks and he’s like a teacher talking to his pupils. The conditions are perfect, both pitches and climate. It’s winter, but we’ve had one day of rain so far.

“There are so many teams here that it provides an excellent opportunity to play against opponents with different playing systems.”

Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Dutch club Feyenoord have also all stayed in Marbella over the last year, with many teams using a midseason break there to sharpen fitness ahead of their domestic leagues restarting later in January.

The German teams came a little earlier this year because of the World Cup finals, while some of the most hard core fans even follow their team for a week’s holiday, with 200 Feyenoord fans travelling last season.

There’s an absence of English clubs for they have no winter break – at least for now, as the idea is being considered for the future – though there are plenty of British scouts in Spain when the January transfer window is open.

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Other factors have helped Spain. The political situation at the other end of the Mediterranean in Turkey, which was formerly an attractive venue for preseason, meant German, Russian and Dutch clubs switched to Spain or Portugal last year.

There were consequently plenty of European opponents for games, Dortmund taking on PSV and Standard Liege, while Dynamo Kiev played 12 games in two weeks.

Dynamo are back in Marbella now, where a service industry of translators and organisers has sprung up around the many visiting teams.

It’s the competitive friendly games which appeal most and unlike some summer tours which are paid for by promoters and sponsors, the clubs pay for their own trips and want them to work.

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The focus on football is paramount and clubs can also have their pick of local sides, who appreciate the practice as they too are coming back from a winter break.

Smaller clubs can also enjoy the prestige of playing against a glamorous name, but generally the bigger clubs want to play each other for more challenging competition, but there can be huge disparities.

Fabio Capello’s Jiangsu Suning lost 8-0 to CSKA Sofia, who’d only arrived the previous day. Such results can lead to complaints about the standard of the opposition, but Chinese teams are still learning and improving.

Shenhua beat Czech side Viktoria Plzen 3-2 this year and Hebei are much better organised than a year ago.

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It’s a chance for clubs to network and Chinese staff are able to absorb long-standing football knowledge and expertise.

Spain is not the only destination for winter training. The UAE and Qatar are also used, but Spain has the highest concentration, especially this year, and Marbella in particular has become the hub for an unlikely gathering of international football clubs.