The Chinese Super League has become a destination league for some of the game’s big names of late. After Didier Drogba agreed a move to Shanghai Shenhua to join his former Chelsea team-mate Nicolas Anelka, Sevilla forward Frederic Kanoute made his way to China's capital to join Beijing Guoan. In the biggest suprise, though, Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita completed an unexpected two-and-half-year deal with newly-promoted Dalian Aerbin at the weekend.
FIFA.com caught up with Aerbin's new Australian import Daniel Mullen, who is looking forward to playing alongside Keita, and against some of the other big names.
"I heard of Keita's signing on Sunday, although I haven’t seen him yet," the 22-year-old Aussie international said. "I am glad to have such a team-mate and you can always learn by playing together with someone like Keita. The Chinese league is growing with these big-name imports and I am looking forward to rubbing shoulders with these stars."
Heading to China
Going west has become the Asian trend in recent years, with the continent's most sought-after talents seeking European moves after starting out on the local stage. One of Australia's most promising stars, Mullen went the other way when he decided on a transfer to China.
"I had a few offers from European clubs when Aerbin came to me with this opportunity," the former Adelaide United defender continued. "The Chinese league has fast developed and Aerbin is a good club. There are plenty of high-quality players here so I think I can improve from match to match."
Mullen is not the first Australian player in the Chinese League, with Mark Milligan and Joel Griffiths among the trail-blazers joining Shanghai and Beijing respectively in 2009. His former Adelaide club-mate Milan Susak was signed by Tianjin Teda this February and that player’s advice proved an important factor in Mullen's decision to move to China. "Milan told me that it is a good league with high-quality teams and good players," he added, "and he said China is a good place to live."
Coincidentally, it was in his Chinese debut that the two old friends re-united. Five days after his arrival at Dalian on Tuesday, Mullen came off the bench to play the second half in Aerbin's home game against Susak's Tianjin, which ended in a 1-1 draw. "It was a good game and both sides played well. It was nice to see Milan and the result was good as neither of us was disappointed."
Aerbin is only Mullen's second professional club, having spent the past four years with Adelaide. While expecting to improve in China, Mullen acknowledged that his home club will always have a special place in his heart. "Adelaide is my hometown where I was born and bred. The home club provided me with the chance to play professional football when I joined them as an 18-year-old. And I gained good experience and developed my play with the club during the past seasons. These are something which I will never repay."
Mullen became a fan favourite in Adelaide by helping his hometown club to the 2008 AFC Champions League final, where they fell to Japanese giants Gamba Osaka. They took sweet revenge in the two sides' rematch in this year's AFC Champions League group campaign, though, with Daniel twice scoring as Adelaide dispatched Gamba 2-0. From there, Mullen maintained his superb continental form as Adelaide stormed into the last eight to set up an enticing clash with Bunyodkor.
"It is a good game against Bunyodkor as the two sides have met four times before. I think Adelaide have all required elements to win it all the way through this year's competition. The current squad have a solid defence and are very strong as a team. When they come out with counter attack, they have a good chance to win against any Asian opponents."
FIFA World Cup™ dream
Mullen is no stranger to global competition with his national team either, having featured in the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup before representing Australia in the following year's FIFA U-20 Cup Egypt 2009. "I was fortunate to play in the two FIFA tournaments," he said. "Not everyone is so lucky to boast such experience. I learned a great deal from these games and gained good experiences. These are things that can never be replicated."
His progress didn't go unnoticed by former Australia manager Pim Verbeek, who gave Mullen his first international cap during qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. The then teenager played the entire game against Kuwait in March 2009 in Canberra which saw an under-strength Australia lose 1-0. It remains Mullen’s only senior cap to date, but he is looking for a return in short order.
"It's everyone's dream to represent their country,” he summed up. “But I must work harder and make consistent progress if I want to join the naitonal team. Australia's physical ability and coaching knowledge used to give the team an edge in Asian qualifying, but in recent years other Asian teams, notably Japan and Korea Republic, have picked up. I hope I can play a part in our qualifying and help my country to Brazil 2014."