SportExamined’s Jack Douglas tells his experiences of the beautiful game after visiting China.
China. The World’s second largest economy, boasting a population of 1.41 billion with a GDPR of $25.2 trillion, find themselves sitting 75th in FIFA’s latest world rankings. Iceland, on the other hand, with a population of just 350,000 are the 22nd best side in the world.
So when one of the most influential nations in the world is suffering from a severe lack of footballing quality, sees an influx of established, world-class foreign players, headlines were inevitably written.
“For a lot of the foreign players, money talks,” Jared, a young football fanatic from Wuhu, on the banks of the Yangtze, tells me. Sporting a Shandong Luneng bright orange shirt with the Brazilian Tardelli 9 on the back, he is under no illusions as to why players are flocking to the far-east.
“Particularly the South Americans. Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Hulk, Ramires, even most recently Nico Gaitán. Players like these, most being still quite young, are willing to drop out of competitive leagues in favour of money.”
“For the Chinese people this is good. Football here hasn’t always been big. It still isn’t. Basketball, badminton and ping pong are still more popular, but it’s growing.”
He’s not wrong, the photo below is Tianjin University’s sports arena; dedicated to ping pong.
Walking through the campus you are never more than ten yards from a student in a Golden State Warriors jersey, as players like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are idolised.
The state were keen to ensure the beautiful game spread and grew in the world’s most populous country. As a result, the Chinese Super League started in 2004 as a result of the rebranding of the then Chinese Football Association Jia-A League.
On a state visit to the UK in 2015, President Xi Jinping visited Manchester City’s new training complex, before stating that he aims to double the size of China’s sporting economy by 2025. Encouraged and inspired by the riches of the Premier League, football it would appear, is the way forward for China’s sports economy.
But the huge financial investment into overseas players has hindered the development of the country’s finest own talent, explains Jared.
“The solution to our poor league became the problem for our national team. Our government were so keen on making Chinese football a worldwide superpower, our domestic talent wasn’t getting the opportunity it deserved.
“Foreign players were taking the positions of our most talented, and our best players were not getting a chance to play. So this year, the league changed. Now, each team is only allowed 3 foreign players in a squad to play a game and must start 1 Under 23 Chinese player, as well as having 2 more as substitutes.
“This gives our young players chance and makes the league fair. It will stop teams like Shànggǎng [Shanghai SIPG] from becoming the Chinese PSG. Yes they will probably win the league this year because Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson are three of the best attackers in China, but it will be close. Shandong Luneng – my team, Beijing Guoan with Renato Augusto, Cédric Bakambu and Jonathan Soriano, or perhaps China’s famous club Guangzhou Evergrande could win it.”
Last year, the Chinese Super League was the 5th highest spectated football league in the world, but to what extent are the locals flocking to only see the flair of the overseas players? Are most supporters genuinely interested in young, home-grown talent?
The answer in most cases, is sadly not.
Ever since the introduction of the Super League, foreign players have dominated the competition. The introductory season in 2004 saw 3 Brazilians: Adilson, Ze Alcino and Ossi Fernando Graziano; and since then, the foreign influx has grown and grown.
When participating in a match against Wuhu University’s best 11, the skill gap in technique was evident. Buoyed only by a familiarity to the humid conditions, the locals were swept aside by our travelling party in a friendly fixture.
At full time, a conversation with a student made me realise something extremely important.
“Chinese culture is very focussed on study,” explains Chen from Shanghai. “From primary school to university my day has lasted from 7am until 6pm. Then when I am home I have to study. Parents don’t allow children to play football, they have to study.”
In contrast to the majority of the world where football is encouraged in schools, China’s imposed view on the importance of studying ensures youngsters can’t just go for a kick-a-bout. The lack of grass roots development, it seems, will continually stall football’s relentless march around the People’s Republic.
“When a break from study is needed, school’s do physical education, but focus on athletics, ping pong or basketball. I don’t know why football isn’t the main sport. With a billion people we should be able to win the world cup every time.”
China have only ever qualified once. South Korea/ Japan saw China’s single showing on the world stage, where they were heavily beaten in all 3 Group C fixtures. But the current interest in youth could be a sign that things are on the up.
Crowded around a small screen in Tianjin, some Chinese students and I watched on as a shock was on the cards in Toulon. China U21s took a surprising lead against England, to the elation of the local football fanatics. Playing superbly and defending resolutely, Chinese dreams were left shattered as Tammy Abraham put the eventual champions 2-1 up in the dying minutes.
Young players like Zhang Yuning, currently on loan at ADO Den Haag from West Brom could be part of an exciting new dynasty of Chinese football. Coached by former Inter, Juventus and Italy boss Marcelo Lippi, back in Wuhu Jared tells me qualification for Qatar is achievable.
“He won the World Cup [in 2006] managing Totti, Cannavaro, Pirlo and Buffon. He is one of the best coaches in the world! If anyone can improve China it is him. We have the most amazing stadiums and a fan-base that is growing by every kick of a ball. With the new rules stopping the use of lots of foreign players, teams like Shandong who have an interest in young players, can help the national team by supplying the next generation of hopefully world class talent.”
As China, empowered by the successes of the Chinese Super League, embarks on this footballing voyage, the foundations appear to be getting laid thanks to the increase of interest in young, domestic talent. Perhaps one of the Asian country’s most famous proverbs, 千里之行，始於足下, A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Football, has taken its’ step.