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Fieldwork: Football coach and translator Jacopo Mazzanti

Mandarin Aspirations

Jacopo Mazzanati lived in China for five years working in the world of professional football as a coach and as a translator. He has passed the HSK 6 and is also the first foreign coach to pass the coaching exam CHINA D of the Chinese Football Association. 

Having returned to Italy, he now covers the position of Sales Area Manager for a leading manufacturer in the Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Packaging Machinery Industry, taking care of the Chinese market.

Read on to learn Jacopo’s tips for attainment and the benefits he has seen in using the language as a means of helping him start a new journey in his career and life. 

New beginnings

I was 27 when I decided to start learning Mandarin. For four years previously, I had owned a clothing shop in the centre of Bologna. With the economic downturn in Italy, I chose to sell my business in 2014, and decided I did not want to remain working in retail on a potentially low salary. 

I asked for suggestions from my two best friends, both of whom can speak Chinese. Leonardo is an expert and loves the Chinese culture and Phillipo is still working in China as a lawyer. These two guys told me; “Jacopo, China has a beautiful culture, you can go to China and learn the Chinese language easily, I tell you”. I told them a thousand times “I won't do it, it is impossible”, but in the end I didn't have a job, I didn't want to work for others, and I didn't want a low salary, so I said to myself, “I have to find a way to change my life and to change my resume”.  

In the end, and I know this is not very romantic, but this was the main reason I decided to learn Chinese: I was without a job, I wanted to make my resume more attractive, and I wanted to change my life. 

First steps learning Mandarin Chinese  

My focus when I was in China was to study and practice Chinese, because I knew one day I would come back to Italy and look to find a good job with this skill; and that’s exactly what I did. I passed the HSK 6 level in 2019. 

In learning Mandarin, I was faced with plenty of challenges. I didn’t study Chinese before, so when I arrived in China, I didn’t know a word in Chinese. 

When I was studying HSK 3, I remember the process of learning the characters. It was very frustrating as when I managed to memorise one, I would just forget another, and so when I started learning Chinese, I felt like I could never do it. I was thinking one thing when I was studying the characters - this language is crazy! Why do they keep on using the characters, they're impossible! 

In the end, I found that the characters have special meanings and are beautiful to look at. I remember, also, if I would give up, I would have to go back to Italy, without a job, so I kept on studying. 

Confidence is key 

At the beginning, I studied for a semester at Nanjing Normal University. In the library, I would seek assistance from my fellow students in understanding this or that character and where to apply it in a phrase with examples. I learned a lot by asking Chinese people for help and practising with them.

On top of studying for eight hours per day, I also worked a part-time job as a football coach in an international school. It was very important to speak the few words that I knew. As a football coach, you must shout; you cannot speak like you are whispering, so you have to be brave. If you say something incorrectly, it is said loudly. At the end of the five years, I was no longer afraid to speak in Chinese or hide behind the risk of making mistakes. 

In the end, I passed all my exams with a good score. I was very happy. 

Take the plane - go to China 

After five months of university, I travelled around China for one month with my girlfriend. She was Italian, and she couldn't speak Chinese, so I was tutoring her, acting as a translator, and coordinating travel and plans as we visited several places. All elements of this environment pushed me to practice my Chinese. 

I suggest that all students of Chinese language go to China as soon as possible. Over there you're going to face the truth; over there you have to adapt to the everyday language, as well as various dialects, slang terms and expressions. Chinese people aren’t all going to speak Chinese like a professor at the Confucius Institute! You have to go there, speak with regular people, study there, and work there. You take the plane, you go to China, and 加油! Because when you first arrive there, it is going to be tough. 

You take the plane, you go to China, and 加油!

“The most important thing is to share knowledge” 

I am an Italian man, and in Italy 99% of men love football, probably also in England, I think! For me, it wasn't a job, it was a pleasure to work as a football coach.

I have a B level UFEA license, so I am a professional coach. I took also CHINA D level of the Chinese Football Association, making me the first international qualified football coach in China. It's a good level; I can coach youth teams up to Premier League level. I have worked for professional clubs including Manchester City, Inter Milan, Jiangsu Suning, and the German Government in Shanghai. 

As my career progressed to more professional clubs, I found that most of the players couldn't speak English, so I started communicating with them in Chinese more and more. I wanted to direct my training to be very professional, so I worked hard to understand and practice. 

At the end of each day, I wrote down a word I had heard while observing training or matches into a spreadsheet on my laptop. I also placed the word in an example sentence - I wrote down a lot of sentences! After five years, I found that I had over 2000 words about football in my Excel. The most important thing is to share knowledge, so in the end, I created a manual using those very words that I had stored on my spreadsheet. 

This year, I published the English-Chinese football terminology manual in English-Chinese with the Minerva publishing house with the patronage of the Confucius Institute of Milan and the Italian Football Coaches Association (AIAC). My goal wasn't to publish a book - my goal was to have all the work inside of my laptop so I could go back home and study. In my opinion, if I had that manual, I would have reached the Chinese Super League not in five years, maybe two! 

Moving forward 

I'm now working as an area manager and the area I'm in charge of is, of course, China. I help the company deal with the Chinese companies that buy automatic machines from us. I was hired by the company because I can speak Chinese. 

I really like this new job. It is, of course, very different to football coaching, where I worked outside all the time under the super hot sun of the south of China. I now work in the office for nine hours a day. Because most of my colleagues do not speak Chinese, I do not often get the chance to use the language. In the future, I am hopeful that I will be able to take up the opportunity to return to China on a business trip. 

Further reading