When I first arrived in China I was open minded and excited to find out what stage of development Chinese football was at. Like many of you, I had heard about the vast sums being spent by Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs and assumed football must really be on the rise. This is true but I also witnessed that it still has a long way to go due to a number of issues I will discuss in this article.
During my time in China the clearest indicator that football was not in a good place was the national team’s World Cup qualifying results. China had twice drawn 0-0 with Hong Kong in 2015 which was further compounded by this year’s 1-0 home defeat to Syria, and a 2-0 defeat away to Uzbekistan in World Cup qualifiers. This is crazy considering China has a population of over 1.3billion people whereas those three nations combined have a population of roughly 56.2 million. It’s no surprise the two defeats led to the sacking of Gao Hongbo and the appointment of Marcello Lippi, who is reportedly being paid an extortionate £18million a year, making him the highest paid manager in the world. In my opinion, this is a complete waste of money and will make absolutely no difference to China’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup or developing a strong team. At the time of writing China are currently ranked 83rd in the world, sandwiched between Faroe Islands with a population of close to 48,000 and Antigua and Barbuda with around 92,000 inhabitants. China have only qualified for the World Cup once in 2002, losing all of their games and failing to score a goal. This lack of success has given people a negative perception of Chinese football with the hiring of Lippi a quick fix to ensure they avoid further embarrassment.
Chinese Super League (CSL)
A top down approach is a recurring theme in China with CSL teams spending 208million in the 2016 January transfer window, outspending the English Premier League, and have since signed other players such as Hulk, who was bought for £48million with his wages reported to be £320,000 a week. These sums have gained global attention for the CSL and have attracted some big names to China but if even half of this money was spent on youth football it would have a much bigger impact. It would result in the development of more young Chinese players who would improve the CSL, as each team is required to have at least seven Chinese players on the pitch at all times, and would also result in a much improved national team, which is the ultimate goal for China.
The main strength China has for the development of football is the support of the president, Xi Jinping. He loves football and developed a 50 point plan in 2014 which has many aims culminating in hosting and winning the World Cup within the next 15 years. The plan also involved creating 20,000 football schools producing 100,000 players by 2017 and 50,000 by 2025. This is a brilliant initiative and is much needed as it will result in more children playing the game from a young age. Many western coaches and coaching organisations are being brought into schools to teach football and in some cases to educate the Chinese PE teachers. There are more full time football academies being set up throughout China including Guangzhou Evergrande’s outstanding football and educational facility. This is positive and a step in the right direction for Chinese football to increase participation and the level of coaching that children will receive. Such is Xi Jinping’s position of power within China that that the CSL owners want to please the president to gain Guanxi (essentially favours) meaning the league will work hand in hand with the national team to improve their fortunes. This has been seen as it’s reported that Guangzhou Evergrande are partly funding Marcello Lippi’s annual £18 million salary. Another positive for the national team is only four foreign players are allowed on the pitch at the one time in the CSL, with no foreign goalkeepers allowed. This is beneficial as it means the Chinese National team will have a high percentage of CSL players to select unlike the English national team which now has less English players competing in the Premier league, as a result of having no restrictions on foreign talent.
During my time in China, I didn’t see or hear much about the Chinese Football Association (CFA) who don’t seem to cater for youth football at all. The one thing I did see was the fact there are no youth leagues in place for the academy youth teams of the CSL clubs which is a major limiting factor in the development of talent. Our U17 team train during the week but rarely get to play games as there is no league and only play in friendlies or tournaments which happen infrequently. We created and ran the Beijing International Junior Football League (BIJFL) ourselves but this is only for players aged 14 and below. A youth league run by the CFA will begin in March for CSL teams which is a step in the right direction despite the fact there will not be games every week and there will be a four year age band (1998-2001) in the league. This is as a consequence of clubs being unable to recruit enough youth players due to having a poor relationship with the CFA and schools being reluctant to release players without a large fee, as they know the wealth of the CSL and that clubs now need a youth team or they will lose their place in the league. This is a unfortunate as when children leave their local FA at 16-18 they have missed out on years of professional coaching and opportunities at clubs making it more difficult to get a professional contract. There is also a lack of quality players to recruit in China which isn’t helped by clubs not having scouting networks in place to identify talent at youth or senior level.
One of my Chinese contacts told me there are only two employees working in the youth department of the CFA which is down to a lack of knowledge and political instability within the organisation. The CFA need a complete reform with the right people being hired based on their expertise rather than their relationship with the CFA hierarchy, which is common place in both Chinese culture and football. Surprisingly the CSL department is also understaffed with only nine employees which is crazy as most leagues have over 100 employees to run their league department. The lack of forethought from the CFA regarding youth development ultimately leaves the development of Chinese kids in the hands of the ministry of education, coaching organisations and football clubs with no coherent strategy in place for increasing participation or developing talent.
The coaching culture I saw was concerning. I turned up early at a venue and sat down to watch a baseball session. What I saw were lots of children standing in lines, the coach was acting as a dictator and the kids who lost were punished with running exercises. These children must have been 10 years old with the punishment being excruciating in the heat, which left three of them running to their parents crying. I couldn’t believe no one said anything to the coach as this would not be tolerated back in the United Kingdom. Of course, this one coach does not represent a nation of coaches but I saw a lot of similarities when watching Chinese coaches work. Sessions involved lots of line drills, unopposed repetitions of technique and the coach being authoritative and shouting at the children. Some of the teams we were playing against in the league trained five times a week which was obvious. In some games we would create a similar number of chances but when they got a chance to strike a ball their technique was unbelievable and they would rifle the ball into the goal. This may work short term in getting results but it is not sustainable and will not develop creative players with good decision making ability. Coaches and PE teachers are only interested in immediate success to avoid embarrassment and save face, which is a big thing in Chinese culture, rather than taking a long-term approach to developing talented young players. The main issue with coaching is the lack of qualified coaches and competent coach educators who understand the culture. This area needs to be improved to create environments, appropriate coaching behaviours, and to encourage coaches to take a long-term approach to talent development.
There is a heavy Spanish influence on the style of play in China which for me is interpreted in the wrong way. I watched the U23 Chinese national team play and it severely lacked entertainment. They keep the ball and work it from side to side but rarely penetrate with a forward pass. I went to watch Beijing Guoan and it was also rather uneventful with few chances created. My friend who went later in the season actually fell asleep during a Guoan game due to the lack of entertainment. Chinese players appear to have a fear of failure and a lack of creativity and decision making ability resulting from the coaching style. Due to Spain’s success during the last decade there are many Spanish coaches in place at organisations such as the Guangzhou Evergrande academy. Many of the Spanish and other foreign coaches conduct their sessions through translators with the language barrier being another challenge in itself.
Culture & sports
I never felt a football culture or love for the game while I was in Beijing or travelling around China. When I went to Bangkok I saw kids playing football and people wearing old English Premier League shirts. When the Thai national team were playing I saw it on peoples TV’s as I drove through the city and saw the game on at the airport. I didn’t see much of this when I was in China, just the odd Beijing Guoan top and CSL games on TV. It’s clear not many kids watch football as they don’t know the rules, such as how to take a throw in, or the names of players. During sessions kids would bounce balls during their rest periods highlighting the role basketball plays as the number one sport. You can see the passion for their much loved Olympic sports with table tennis facilities in parks and lots of people playing early in the morning. When the Olympic table tennis coach was presented to the crowd before the final of the China Open he got a better reception than Andy Murray who won the competition! Traditionally China have done well in the Olympics particularly the individual events but have struggled with team games. This may be down to the extreme coaching methods being better suited to individual pursuits, and not many having siblings, resulting in them not being used to sharing or being part of a team. Also in schools there are 40 children in one classroom with the teacher leading everything meaning there is no group work or opportunity to work on social skills which is a vital skill for team sports. Currently football is struggling to compete with basketball and the Olympic sports which impacts upon the number of people playing the game.
Parental influence & school
At 15 young players have to choose between chasing an unpredictable career in professional football or education as you cannot do the two side by side as you can in Europe, which is a big risk for young players to take and results in the loss of many talented prospects. This also isn’t helped by the fact parents don’t see football as a career for their child with lots giving up the game after 12 years old to focus on their studies. We need to make people realise the benefits of sport beyond that of a professional career. Unfortunately, football and the CSL have not always been seen in the best light with match fixing and corruption scandals taking place in the past and the results of the Chinese national team. The president, Xi Jinping, is on task to improve this as part of his football reformation which should hopefully change the perception of football in China.
For a city with around 21.7 million people there should be many more quality and affordable 5, 7, and 11 aside pitches in Beijing. The pitches currently in place are poor quality with a lot of the 5 aside being astro turf pitches which creates a lot of wear and tear on the body. Even the National training centre where the Chinese national team train is old and needs refurbished. Some of the international schools have good facilities, where we run our league but they are few and far between. The lack of investment in facilities results in less opportunities for youngsters to spend time honing their skills.
Chinese football is heading in the right direction but they are still a long way from achieving the president’s aims. The football movement will remain as it’s coming from president Xi Jinping but I do hope they don’t give up in 10 years time when the president’s term is over or through embarrassment of not achieving their goals in the time frame set, which is only three World Cups away. To achieve these aims more children need to be playing the game, the CFA need to place more emphasis on youth development by hiring specialists for each region, scouting networks need to be developed to find the best young talent, and more qualified youth coaches are needed alongside western expertise. There also needs to be an understanding that throwing money around at senior level will not fix the problems and that youth development is a long term strategic process which will not deliver immediate results. I really hope China achieve president Xi Jinping’s goals and reign supreme on the world stage, but I do have my doubts.
Thanks for reading.
Originally posted: 18th December 2016