Shanghai (AFP) – Paul Gascoigne described life in China in 2003 as “like being locked in a cave”, but foreign stars in the country today earn among the biggest wages in football and live more like kings than Neanderthals.

The most talented English midfielder of his generation, Gascoigne was one of the first big-name footballers to arrive in China when he made the shock decision to be a player-coach of second division Gansu Tianma.

Now 50 and fighting alcoholism, Gascoigne lasted just a handful of games at the tail-end of his career and in a subsequent book the man fondly known as “Gazza” described a nightmarish existence.

“I hated it at first, especially the food. We had duck’s head, duck’s eyes, chicken feet and a lot of bat,” Gascoigne said in the book “Gazza: My Story”.

His anecdotes about his stint in Gansu, even now one of the least developed provinces in China, depicted a backwater where nobody understood him and there was nothing to do.

It fitted a Western stereotype of life in China — strange food, strange language and strange environment. 

But China — and Chinese football — has come a long way since the early 2000s on the back of a booming economy, now the world’s second largest after the United States.  

Shanghai SIPG a year ago shattered the Asian transfer record to sign Brazilian attacking midfielder Oscar from Chelsea for 60 million euros.

Shanghai Shenhua at the same time lured Carlos Tevez to China on reported wages of 730,000 euros a week, making him at that time the best-earning footballer on the planet.

Tevez has since returned to Boca Juniors after failing to settle — a common theme throughout his career.

Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba were two other big-name stars who arrived in China to great fanfare and hefty wage packets but similarly beat a fast retreat, appearing in just over 30 games between them for Shenhua in 2012-2013.

– Pato thrives –

But there are plenty of foreign players who thrive in China, and Brazilian midfielder Paulinho’s transfer from Guangzhou Evergrande to Barcelona last summer was proof that the country is no longer a final payday at the end of a career. 

Striker Alexandre Pato, 28, has re-discovered his love for football since signing for Tianjin Quanjian a year ago, sparking suggestions of a return to the Brazil team.

Pato has embraced Chinese social media and posts regularly on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, gaining 380,000 followers.

Chinese football fans have noted favourably how the former AC Milan starlet has settled in Tianjin, a port city close to Beijing — a stark contrast to Tevez and his disgruntled stay in Shanghai. 

“I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to 2017 because in this year I found China as my new home, I found happiness and I learned a lot from this experience,” he wrote at the turn of the year on Weibo, along with a picture of him smiling at the Great Wall, a Chinese flag fluttering beside him.

Well-known foreign players enjoy a pampered life in China, with plush homes and interpreters to help on and off the pitch. Chefs prepare their favourite food and drivers are on hand for their every whim.

Living in so-called “first-tier” cities such as Guangzhou, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Nanjing — home of Jiangsu Suning, coached by former Real Madrid and England coach Fabio Capello — increasingly means international cuisine, good shopping, fellow Westerners and some English spoken.

The money of course helps — Oscar openly admits that is why he came to China — but as Tevez found, it is not everything.

– ‘Huge differences’ –

Jack Sealy’s time at Changchun Yatai, a mid-table Chinese Super League team that is geographically nearer to the North Korean capital Pyongyang than Beijing, was more Gazza than Pato.

The English-born defender says there are “huge cultural differences”, particularly in a place like Changchun, a city of about 7.7 million that is rarely on the tourist map.

“Everything is just rushed, and busy, and hurried, and it’s loud. You can’t really find any similarities,” the 30-year-old, who joined Changchun from Hong Kong club side South China in 2016, told The Times of London.

“No one really speaks English at all so trying to communicate can be tough,” added Sealy, admitting that life “can get a bit boring”.

Sealy has since returned to Hong Kong after two seasons on the fringes at Changchun. 

“You have to be really open-minded and really understanding and patient,” he said, “if you want to have any chance of surviving.”