Soccer stars settle in, but it can be a struggle

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Congolese striker Cedric Bakambu beats Dalian Yifang goalkeeper Zhang Chong while in action for Beijing Guoan in the Chinese Super League on Aug 14. Ju Huanzong / Xinhua

Despite the culture gap and acclimation issues, elite African soccer players have mostly enjoyed their wellpaid adventures as part of China's top league.

As the country's increasing investment in professional soccer attracts global talent, African players have made their presence felt in the Chinese Super League, with fans won over by their athleticism on the pitch and their efforts to embrace cultural differences off it.

The popularity of Cedric Bakambu, a Congolese striker for Beijing Guoan, underlines the rising African force in the CSL, where 15 out of 64 foreign players are from Africa.

One of this season's top scorers, Bakambu has netted 13 goals in 15 starts, securing his team the No 1 spot at the midway point.

Even though the 27-year-old striker failed to score in Beijing's 5-2 victory over Tianjin Teda on Aug 25, his attacking style of play drew cheers every time he touched the ball at the iconic Workers' Stadium, the Chinese capital's "soccer mecca".

However, the decision to leave the high-profile Spanish La Liga for the Chinese league was a tough one.

Bakambu's transfer from Villarreal to Guoan for a reported 40 million euros ($46.4 million) in February provoked disdainful comments about talented players being lured to China in their prime for money.

However, Bakambu insists he made a "good choice" in swapping Spain for China.

"I made a good choice to come here. It's a new experience, and I enjoy a lot my new life here in China," he said after Guoan's 2-2 draw with Shanghai Shenhua last month.

Bakambu said he does not care what people think about him moving to China at the pinnacle of his career, as he knows it was about more than just a lucrative contract.

"I know why I'm here and it doesn't matter what others think," said Bakambu, who is reported to earn about 143 million yuan ($21 million) a year at Guoan. "The owner has a very ambitious plan for the team, and he expects me to be a major part of it. That's what sounds appealing to me.

"I like my life here in China and Beijing, because I have good friends in my team, I am with my family, I am scoring goals and we are winning a lot of games," he said.

Unlike Bakambu, whose family moved with him to Beijing, some African players have found it tough plying their trade in China due to the loneliness and culture shock.

Cameroon international Stephane Mbia, who used to play in midfield for Hebei China Fortune, said after leaving the CSL in March that isolation and a lack of company were a big part of his decision to exit China.

"Even though the league in China is developing and the income is good, the loneliness made it tough to continue," said Mbia, who had joined the club - based in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province - in early 2016.

Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo, who joined CSL's Changchun Yatai from English Premier League club Watford in January last year, echoed Mbia, saying that acclimating to life off the field could be tough.

"It's not easy because you move from one country to another and you have to adapt to a different culture, a different lifestyle and even the food," said the player, who was part of Nigeria's 2018 World Cup squad in Russia.

But after the initial shock, Ighalo said he has begun to settle in Changchun, capital of Jilin province.

"It's like changing your life entirely. The first few months after I came it was very difficult because I had to change so much. Now I feel like home. Everything is OK," he said.

"This is my second year in China. I'm more adapted to the culture, to the Chinese league, to the city of Changchun. So I'm ready to stay more years, as long as the club needs me."

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