Let’s talk footie in China
That’s right. China sets its sights on footballing glory.
Decked out in his team’s cherry red scarf, hat, and jersey, and clutching an outsized tiger mascot, there’s no mistaking which Chinese club Chen Yusheng supports. “We’re playing Jiangsu Suning today, so it’ll probably be five-nil to us,” the diehard Guangzhou Evergrande fan says with a grin.
The southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is fast becoming the country’s hotbed of football. Having won the Chinese Super League for the last seven years, Evergrande are now carving a name for themselves as the Manchester United of China.
“Football is a huge part of life here in Guangzhou,” says Chen Yusheng. But these days expectations of China-based football aren’t limited to the Evergrande team. In March 2015, driven by the ambition of current president Xi Jinping, the Chinese government published a 50-point plan for Chinese football. With a focus on grassroots development, it calls for China to become a “football powerhouse,” with the capability of qualifying for, hosting, and winning the World Cup by 2050.
“Not many people know that China invented football,” says Chen Yusheng. “If we could one day win the World Cup, football really would be coming home.”
Let a hundred Messis bloom
The Evergrande Football School, situated around one hour’s drive north of Guangzhou in the city of Qingyuan, opened in 2012. The largest football academy in the world, it boasts a stadium, auditorium, outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, and gym, not to mention a small army of Spanish football coaches.
This vast, 148 million euros complex typifies the huge sums of money now being invested in Chinese football by both the government and professional teams. By 2020, China intends to have 70,000 football pitches across the country and 20,000 training centres. By 2030, the target is to have one pitch per 10,000 people.
“Many parents still view football as a hindrance to education.”
The need to develop Chinese footballing talent is both obvious and urgent. China’s national football team, which has only ever qualified for one World Cup, currently wallows in 70th position in the FIFA rankings, sandwiched between Finland and Mali. If all goes to plan, the kids learning to dribble, pass, and shoot at the Evergrande Football School today will become supremely talented stars representing Guangzhou Evergrande and their country a few years down the line.
With a lack of skilled Chinese football coaches, China’s drive for homegrown footballing excellence demands international support. The Premier Skills programme, a global partnership between the United Kingdom’s Premier League and the British Council, launched in China in 2009. By 2020, the aim is to have trained 5,000 Chinese coaches and reached out to five million children.
But while young people in China may be as motivated to play football as in any other country, many of their parents still view the game as a hindrance to education.
“Awareness of the benefits of sports and physical activity is generally low in China,” says Jazreel Goh, director of education and sports marketing at British Council China. “By showing that football can make young Chinese people healthier and more confident, Premier Skills is helping to develop a love of football in China that supports the Chinese aim of creating a national football culture.”
More than a game
Today football in China is big business. Most clubs in the top tier of professional Chinese football are backed by corporations or billionaires, who see investment in their teams as a means of raising the profile of their brand and currying political favour.
This has seen eye-watering sums spent recently on importing football stars from the West. With weekly wages of nearly 800 thousand euros on offer, high-profile players such as Hulk, Carlos Tevez, and Didier Drogba have decamped eastward over the last few seasons.
These purchases may have excited Chinese fans, but many observers, including the Chinese government, have viewed such astronomical spending as counterproductive to China’s football blueprint, loading clubs with unsustainable levels of debt and skewing investment away from grassroots development.
But last year Beijing imposed a new tax on foreign players, making such imports doubly expensive. This has seen a growing number of Chinese Super League clubs commit themselves to nurturing homegrown players, with Guangzhou Evergrande announcing their intention to field an all-Chinese team by 2020.
Many experts on Chinese football see this as another step in the right direction.
“I completely support the import tax and proper distribution of financial resources to grassroots football in China,” says Rowan Simons, chairman of China ClubFootball FC (a Beijing-based amateur football club) and author of Bamboo Goalposts, a book about Simons’ quest to introduce Chinese people to football. “Despite all the spending, the biggest challenge to Xi Jinping’s ambition remains the same – getting the Chinese nation to fall in love with football,” he says.
Text Daniel Allen
Illustration Emmi-Riikka Vartiainen