Have boots will travel: Life at the sharp end for football's pioneers

    Jorge Rodrigues, a Brazilian expatriate professional footballer, has played in leagues across the globe. He now lives in Hong Kong, where he plays for Citizen Athletic Association and coaches.

    Story highlights

    • For some, the dream of playing professional soccer takes them to obscure leagues -- and even more obscure teams
    • Adapting can be difficult, especially as expectations can be high for foreign imports
    • For many "journeymen" the rewards of playing in football's outposts outweigh the negatives

    Hong Kong (CNN)It's a gray, cold day on Hong Kong's harbor front and the smoggy haze suggests that the weather -- and the pollution -- is getting worse.

    The modest artificial football pitch looking out over the murky water is a far cry from the sporting amphitheater in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo that Jorge Rodrigues once graced -- as a teenage prospect with the great Corinthians club, or from the Brazilian under-17's national team, where he played with Ronaldo, arguably one of the greatest footballers to have ever played the game.
      A youthful Jorge Rodrigues (far left) sits with Brazil under-17 teammate Ronaldo (far right)
      But as Rodrigues puts a phalanx of seven- and eight-year-olds through their paces thousands of miles away in Asia, all that matters is he's still involved in football.
      He's now 39 and looking towards the next stage of a meandering playing career that has led him from the Brazilian leagues, through Russia, Finland, South Korea and ultimately, Hong Kong.
      Rodrigues, or Jorgito as he's known, is one of hundreds of players who have taken the road less traveled, turning out in obscure leagues for even more obscure teams, just happy to be making a living from the sport they love.
      Coaching kids is a new thing for Rodrigues, to supplement the dwindling appearances for his current team, second-tier Citizen AA.
      Alongside some other professionals from Hong Kong's modest football league structure, Rodrigues has founded a business passing on his and his partners' not-inconsiderable skills, honed over nomadic careers.
      Rodrigues has recently expanded into training, and coaches kids in addition to his Citizen AA duties.
      The January transfer window has now slammed shut and some of Europe's biggest teams have concluded headline-grabbing deals -- such as Gabriel Paulista's move from Spanish side Villareal to London's Arsenal, or teen sensation Martin Odegaard's transfer to Real Madrid from Norwegian club Stromsgodset.
      Some of those at the other end of the footballing spectrum, meanwhile, look back at a lifetime of moving from club to club.
      While he never reached the dizzying highs that he might once have dreamed of, Rodrigues says he is enjoying life.
      "At the moment I want to stay in Hong Kong. I started this company three years ago. It's starting to go (well). I feel at home. I love this city and while I don't know my future, I want to do more coaching courses. I think I could become a good coach."

      Bright start

      When he was a kid, things couldn't have looked brighter. Picked for the under-17's "Selecao," the national team, he played alongside one of Brazil's all-time greats, Ronaldo. But while the twinkle-toed genius went on to turn out for world-famous teams like Inter Milan, Barcelona and their great rivals Real Madrid, Rodrigues' career took him to less-storied destinations.
      "When we play for Citizen, we're playing in front of 300, 400? In Russia, it was maybe 10-20,000 people. For Corinthians?" He exhales. "50,000."
      Rodrigues formerly played in front of the raucous Corinthians fans, who regularly turned out in their thousands to watch the Brazilian team.
      Despite this though, he says, he feels content that he's making a living from the game.
      "Not just me but my family, you know? When I was 18, 19, playing for Corinthians, then going to Russia, making a bit of money. I was thinking to provide for them. Here in Hong Kong, the money isn't 100% comfortable but it's good. It's not easy to be a professional (footballer), every kid in Brazil wants to do it."

      Escaping the lower leagues

      Plodding along somewhere towards the bottom of the league pyramid is a disheartening way to make a career.
      For German midfielder Bjorn Lindemann, of Army United, Suphanburi FC, and latterly Nakhon Ratchasima FC in Bangkok, Thailand offered an escape.
      Lindemann moved from German top-division side Hannover 96, down the rungs to teams in the country's lower divisions and, in 2012, took on a new and unexpected challenge on the other side of the world.
      Lindemann (R) when he played for Bundelsiga.2 team VfL Osnabrueck in 2011.
      Unlike plenty of his compatriots, who see the Southeast Asian country as the perfect winter getaway, the footballer had never visited Thailand before undertaking a brief fact-finding mission, after his agent had identified Army as a potential club for him.
      "I thought, OK, it's a big step to move to another country but thought it might be worth it. I came over for a couple of days, looked at the club and facilities, looked at (what they were offering) and everything was great so I said 'OK, done, why not?'
      "Now I've been here for three years. I had no idea in my mind what was going on when I first arrived. Now I can understand a little bit and speak a little bit but it's a difficult language. Now I have a lot of Thai friends and it's getting better."

      Difficult start

      He says his first weeks and months were really difficult. "I came to a very different place, the football was different, the culture (at the club). When you come from Europe, there isn't much difference between clubs in England, Spain but when you come here everything is different," he says.
      Lindemann, training with previous club Suphanburi FC
      The obscurity of the Thai league didn't help -- mention of it in the European press is rare, if not unheard of. Lindemann tried in vain to learn a little more about the clubs he would be playing for -- and against -- but most of the websites he looked at, hoping to glean scraps of information, were in Thai.
      He was basically flying into a footballing culture blind. He says the first few months were tough, with the added expectations of being a foreign import. Adapting fully, he says, took almost a year.
      Now that he's settled, and with a new club, he says that the team culture in Thailand is more relaxed. "In Europe if you lose you're angry, maybe looking to blame someone, but here they're happy, 'OK, we lose, but tomorrow...' It's not a problem."

      Australia, England, Ireland ... Harbin?

      Adam Hughes is another international journeyman, who has turned out for teams in Australia (Newcastle Jets, Woolongong Wolves, Adelaide United, Perth Glory), England (League One side Doncaster) and Ireland (Sligo Rovers, Drogheda United) before making a move to the icy north of China and the city of Harbin.
      "I wanted to have a go in Asia. Thought long and hard; it's time to go to Asia and have a go over there," he tells CNN over the phone.
      Adam Hughes in action for his Chinese Super League club, Harbin Yiteng F.C.
      "I'd been to Asia: China, Japan and Korea with Adelaide, playing in the Asian Champions League so had gained a little bit of experience and that's what probably opened my eyes enough to say, 'OK, I'm ready to give this a shot.' I initially signed a one-year contract to test the water."
      He wasn't the first Aussie to ply his trade in China's Super League -- indeed, with Australian star Tim Cahill reportedly signing for Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua, he is far from being the last.
      Advice from his former Newcastle teammates, the brothers Joel, Ryan and Adam Griffiths, who was invaluable in making up his mind. But it was tough going at first.


      "When you first come in you're trying to get your head around the food, the language; you're trying to learn China because it's such a different culture. Once you've started adapting and understanding, it's a very beautiful place to be. China's very livable once you understand it."
      Harbin Yiteng may not be up there alongside the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, but Hughes is proud of his journey and where he's ended up.
      "I wouldn't say I've been lucky. I worked extremely hard to be where I am and I've put everything into the game.
      "What I've got out of my career so far has definitely been out of hard work and doing a little bit extra. If you've got the passion for it, a little bit of ability and work ethic and you can make a living out of football."