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From sleeping in toilet to Champions League – and now China

South African striker Dino Ndlovu spent three nights sheltering in a station toilet before going on to play Champions League football -- and he is now embarking on the latest chapter in his career with a move to China.

The well-travelled 27-year-old has swapped European football with Azerbaijan’s Qarabag for Zhejiang Greentown, a club in China’s second tier and formerly called Hangzhou Greentown.

It is Ndlovu’s first time in China, he arrived just days ago and does not speak the language, he told AFP as he adjusts to his new life.

Ndlovu said that prior to joining the club he learnt about Hangzhou, a city near Shanghai, by looking online.

It would be a daunting prospect for many people, but Ndlovu — who has a handful of caps for South Africa — coped with much harder when he was 18.

“I was from a village 110 kilometres (70 miles) from Johannesburg, but Johannesburg is where everything happens,” he said by telephone from southwestern China’s Yunnan province, where his team is preparing for the coming season.

“When I was young my dream was to be a professional footballer and I was going for trials at the academy of Platinum Stars, one of the teams in the PSL (South Africa’s Premier Soccer League), but the trials were every day.

“So they said we will give you three days’ training with us, but you have to get yourself accommodation and food.

“But I told myself I couldn’t go back 110 km to sleep, it’s impossible.

“So I had to come up with a plan and the only way was to sleep in the toilets of the railway station.

“I am not ashamed to talk about it, I am proud. It is a risk that I took and ultimately I reached my goal, I got a contract.

“It was tough, it was cold — so cold — it was scary, but I knew what I wanted and it’s about sacrifice.”

– Language barrier –

Ndlovu’s feet have hardly touched the ground since signing for Greentown at the weekend, and he is getting to know his new team-mates despite the language barrier.

He has a translator and is more focused at the moment on his football than mastering Chinese.

“The Chinese language has so many characters so it’s difficult to learn,” he said.

“But the basics, ‘How are you? Hi, good morning’, I will know those kinds of things. But to construct a sentence is not something I am willing to go all-out for.

“Football is not about language, it is what you do on the pitch. The language won’t stop us achieving what we want to achieve.”

Ndlovu said he rejected offers from Qatar, Romania, United Arab Emirates and Russia to sign for Greentown.

Chinese football is attracting a growing number of well-paid overseas footballers, but Ndlovu said it was more than just the money. The Russia offer would have paid just as well.

“I am not a player who takes the easy way out,” he said.

“I wanted to come to a country with a different culture, different time zone, to Asia, to help the club achieve something.”

– ‘Different level’ –

Ndlovu is used to taking up in a new country, as after playing in South Africa he had spells in Israel, Cyprus and then Azerbaijan.

It was with Baku-based Qarabag that he enjoyed his finest moment so far, scoring the goal at Copenhagen that sealed a spot in the Champions League group stages in August last year.

Qarabag were handed the toughest of assignments in facing Roma, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid and even though they finished bottom of the group, it does not detract from the experience.

“We scored that goal and won the tie and the feeling of the people of Baku… people didn’t want to sleep and when we landed from Denmark there was almost 10,000 people at the airport waiting,” he said.

Greentown and Ndlovu hope that his experience will help them get promotion back to the Chinese Super League (CSL), following their relegation in 2016.

He has been impressed by his new team-mates, but cautioned that it was a different proposition to Qarabag, where most were internationals.

“If we weren’t playing Champions League, we were playing Europa League, every year. The level is way bigger,” he said.

“But everywhere in the world there is room for improvement and with these players here, the young squad we have, I think we can improve to reach our ultimate goal.”

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