A Bizarre Love Triangle

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

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.