Updated: Apr 21
For many of us, professional football begins as a far-fetched dream. Some of us play club growing up, advance to high school, and if we’re lucky get the chance to play in college and beyond. While a small percentage of us will make the jump and sign a professional contract, most of us will not.
Our September feature story is a three-part series dating back to January 2011 where we follow the story of Jake Mann, a former student-athlete at Colorado State University, whose passion for soccer and adventure landed him a trial with 2006 FIFA World Cup winning coach Marcelo Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande in China. We’ll touch on Jake’s half-Chinese half-American heritage, his experience abroad, and how one life-long passion sabotaged the other.
Here is his story:
I was on a subway enroute to the highest-profile professional soccer tryout of my life and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Weeks earlier, through a family friend, I was connected to a former Chinese National Team player from the 80’s. He was briefed on my pursuit of professional soccer and offered to host me at his family’s home in Guangzhou while I trained for my tryouts. His heartfelt hospitality was immense and I felt welcomed upon arrival. Minutes after propping my backpack up against the guest room wall, my host offered up some tea. We sat and sipped together as I flexed my good-not-great conversational Chinese before turning in for some rest.
The next morning my host let me know he had made contact with some old friends and I would attend a trial in a week. When I asked who for, he replied, “Guangzhou”. Now, there are a few professional teams in Guangzhou and at the time two in the top flight. One side, Guangzhou R&F, was promoted the season prior and had just appointed former England boss Sven-Göran Eriksson as manager. The other team was reigning Champions, Guangzhou Evergrande. Their manager: Marcelo Lippi – former coach of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning national team. Was I really about to attempt to impress either of these esteemed legends?
Surely, my Chinese must have failed me and some of the details had to have been lost in translation. Thankfully, I’d soon have the opportunity to confirm my inflated sense of Chinese fluency. We were invited to watch a friendly prior to my tryout where, surely, I’d observe my future lower-league teammates in action. Turns out, my Chinese was actually pretty good. A few days later we pulled up to Tianhe Stadium, home of Signore Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande; the Chinese Super League, Chinese FA Cup, and Chinese Super FA Cup grand champs. The team would also go on to be crowned the best team in all of Asia as they hoisted the AFC Champions League trophy the following season. Was I ready? Hell no.
This story is not about triumph, nor is it about overcoming the odds to turn heads at a trial where I didn’t belong. It’s not even a story with some tips about what not to do. It’s a funny and transformative footnote during my brief spell as an aspiring professional athlete. An athlete who just weeks before this debacle got police-escorted out of Shanghai Shenhua’s training ground after walking in like he owned the place, but that’s a story for another time.
This story is about how the people, places, and the food in China would come to define me in more ways than I could imagine. This story is about how my greatest passion, food, conquered football and wrecked a massive opportunity to make it as a pro.
Now that you know the two things that matter to me most, here’s another fun fact: I’ve fallen asleep standing up before. Yup, on that subway ride in Guangzhou, swaying back and forth as the train hurtled down the track, falling deeper and deeper into a dark and miserable food coma -- helpless as one of my life’s true loves sabotaged the other. Not even chugging pre-workout in-between burps could inject enough energy into me as I neared ever closer to potentially playing for one of the game’s greatest managers. How did I land in this predicament, blowing it before my chance had even arrived? Two words: Dim Sum.
The morning of the biggest try out of my life my host suggests we go to Dim Sum for breakfast. Mind you, Guangzhou is considered home to the best Dim Sum in the world. Not in the country, not across the continent, but the world. Stacks upon stacks of steaming baskets filled with dozens of dumplings and delicacies sounds like something out of my most wet dream. So how could I, someone who loves food more than life itself, NOT over indulge? Having an extremely generous host certainly did not help as he continued to pile shiny and delicious morsels on my plate.
Dim Sum, for the uninitiated, is a classic Chinese mid-morning meal consisting of many snacks and small plates. However, Dim Sum is more experience than meal. It’s a custom that fosters a sense of community and encourages sharing. Sharing the many varieties of dumplings, sharing tea with one another, and of course, lots of spilling the “tea”, a.k.a. gossiping/catching up/talking shit.
I’d like to think today, presented with the same opportunity, I’d show a bit more discipline. But ultimately, we’ll never know. What we do know though, is that I did not get invited back to sign my first major pro contract. Marcelo Lippi wasn’t even there. I played 15 forgettable minutes in a scrimmage on the practice fields outside the stadium. The only moment from that spell on the pitch I can’t seem to erase from my memory is a giveaway I committed while attempting an outrageously unnecessary outside-of-the-foot pass, which received collective groans from all in attendance. I was certainly not the star I set out to be, not yet at least. Dim Sum stole the show and was hands down the day’s Most Valuable Potsticker.
The Story Continues
Check out Part 2: A Match Made in Heaven, here.