Readers of this blog will know of my interests (and soft spot) for all things Scotland. I previously wrote a brief ten-point approach to revitalising Scottish Football.
In the time that has elapsed since that article was written, we’ve seen a robust approach to football development in China. Now, football has always been popular in China but the attempts towards establishing China as a footballing powerhouse have been sporadic at best. However when President Xi Jinping became the President of the People’s Republic of China, it all changed.
It has to be noted that President Xi is a huge football fan and he has publicly outlined his vision for China to one day host the World Cup and to then win it! In 2015, a 50-point plan was announced by the Central Planning Committee (of the Chinese Communist Party) to overhaul Chinese football and it was overseen by President Xi.
This desire for China to be a football giant isn’t a new one. The other Chinese leader in the past who had huge dreams for Chinese football was Deng Xiaoping, the architect for China’s economic liberalisation but his priorities had to be primarily on economic and social development.
Chinese football fans are a hugely passionate lot – I recall watching the Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC) playing the Chinese Army Ba Yi team in 1998 at the old Kallang Stadium in Singapore and it was sellout turnout that was half Singaporean and half Chinese (despite the fact it was held in Singapore!) and the passion and energy was fantastic.
In fact, when Stockport County (from the Second Division) did a tour in China, their matches were attended by over 20,000 fans per game (more than five times their home average home attendance!).
The Chinese Football Association Strategy
The Chinese Football Association have clearly spelt out their desire and strategy to be a ‘world football superpower by the middle of the century.’
In an effort to match the strategy, they have embarked on a five-pronged approach towards delivering their vision.
1. Grassroots training, academies’ development and training
The Chinese investment into building the game at grassroots level is absolutely staggering. According to a memo sent out by the Ministry of Education in China on July 2015, they have identified 4,755 schools as specialist footballing academies.
Last year, the world’s largest (and arguably the most expensive) football academy – the Evergrande Football School – opened in Guangzhou, a Southern Chinese province. The school built in 10 months cost over $185 million. The school also has partnered with Real Madrid to provide the trainers and coaches to help develop about 3,000 young Chinese footballers.
Other football clubs, including Manchester City, and ex-players such as Luis Figo and Michael Owen have also established their football academies across China.
The Chinese government have also expressed a clear commitment to include football as part of the overall school curriculum.
This is part of the overall goal to ensure over 50 million children and adults play football regularly by 2020 and to develop the critical mass of high-quality players required to develop a world-class team.
2. Providing Chinese players with international experience and exposure
There have not been as many high-profile Chinese players in European leagues. The two most recognisable players were Sun Jihai and Li Tie who played for Manchester City and Everton respectively. Unlike South Korean and Japanese superstars (such as Park Ji Sung for Manchester United, Hideotoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura for Celtic, et et), Chinese players have not been able to shine at the top European leagues.
There is now concerted effort to get Chinese players playing in the top European leagues to get the international exposure. There is a reasonable expectation that this will not only allow for top players to develop their craft further but also help China in their international competitions.
It is to be noted though that Chinese players turning out for British teams saw over 350 million Chinese viewers becoming more interested in British football!
3. Ownership and partnerships with globally-renowned football clubs
The top Chinese companies are now investing, partnering or buying outright top teams across Europe. From Atletico Madrid to Inter Milan to Wolverhampton Wanderers, we see Chinese ownership. Chinese consortiums are also partners in other clubs such as Manchester City. This is part of a wider effort not only to drive economic benefits that come from effective management of football teams but to also learn and adopt best club management practices. These best practices will ultimately support better footballing management and establishment of world-class processes and procedures required to develop a football network back in China.
4. Bringing world-class managers and trainers to China
The top teams in the Chinese leagues are now bringing in expert football managers and coaches with very impressive pedigrees. The likes of Luis Felipe Scolari, Sven-Goran Erikkson and Dan Petrescu have come to Chinese leagues and have helped raise the level of the game in China.
5. Signing high-quality talent and superstars from overseas to play in Chinese leagues
In the recent year we’ve seen the financial muscle of Chinese football clubs (supported by the richest Chinese companies and their billionaire owners, including Jack Ma of Alibaba fame and Wang Jianlin, owner of Dalian Wanda and China’s richest man) outbid top European clubs for the services of world-class footballers. From Ramires (£23 million), to Alex Teixera, to Hulk (for £47 million), to Carlos Tevez (being paid an estimated £20m per annum), we’re seeing a very deliberate policy of bringing the best players to China in an effort to drive up the overall quality of Chinese players in the Chinese League through better exposure to top talent.
What all of the above demonstrates is a clear laser-like focus on the Chinese government ambitions of winning the World Cup in the coming decades. We see the ambition being matched with money, political support and commitment from across all sectors (education, business and policy) – and this is just the start.
One Area For Further Development
There is, however, one area which is still missing. Chinese players need to be playing against quality opposition week-in, week-out. Whilst the youth and grassroots development is a step in the right direction, it is going to take a decade or more before there is a crop of players who will provide the quality opposition. Having a few superstar players (limited to three foreign players per team in any event) again is not enough. Similarly, having a couple of world-class coaches is not going to be enough.
The Chinese league needs to have complete teams with quality players who can provide the Chinese players with the type of competition and exposure that will allow them to make step changes in their development and progress.
This is where Scottish football comes in!
What Could This Mean For Scottish Football?
The Scottish FA have provided for development loans to help build the youth football framework across Scottish football clubs. The Scottish FA have also provided financial incentives to Scottish football team for performance-based outcomes which include number of under-21 players in the first team.
Alistair Gray, in a BBC interview, also highlighted the quality of youth players from Scotland and the need for the players to have more competitive game time to further develop their capabilities.
My proposal is that the Chinese Football Association allow for the Celtic U23 and Rangers U23 participate in the Chinese Super League and increase the size of the league from 16 to 18 teams.
What would this mean for Chinese football and the players in the league?
- It means that you will have the top Chinese teams playing against the cream of the crop from Scottish Football , against young players who are technically very competent.
- It will also allow for Chinese teams to get used to the pace of football Scottish teams can provide and help build the overall footballing game intelligence for Chinese league players.
- This will allow for a much more holistic development of Chinese players and get them acclimatised to playing against different styles and against much higher overall quality players.
- It could also lead to a more formal exchange programme between Chinese league players and Scottish football clubs and also promote greater youth development through these exchange programmes.
There are significant benefits for Scottish football as a result of this proposal:
- It will mean the top youth players from Scotland will have the opportunity to play against an up-and-coming group of Chinese players and further hone their skills.
- It will also create greater interest in Scottish football by Chinese fans and will spur a greater following. It will help expose Chinese football fans to the intrigues and entertainment of Scottish football. The history of Scottish football, its lore and fables – from the Lions of Lisbon, to the history of the Old Firm derbies, Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal against the Dutch in the 1978 World Cup. This will allow for the Scottish Professional Football League to negotiate better rates for the TV deal in China in the future. Imagine a world with a billion more interested Scottish football fans!
- An Old Firm derby in Shanghai – the opportunity to recreate one of the world’s most historic football rivalries, creating an interest in the history and ethos of both Celtic and Rangers for an entirely new audience remains a very tantalising prospect.
- It also provides a fabulous opportunity for Scottish youth to experience a year out in China, learning more about the culture and experiencing life from a different lens and perspective. This can only further build the bridges between cultures.
Ultimately this initiative will lead to greater awareness and relationships between both China and Scotland. It also becomes a fantastic opportunity for Scotland to showcase her natural beauty, the culture and traditions of Scotland and help increase the overall tourism and investment by Chinese.
It will also help the Chinese sports authorities get one step closer to meeting the Chinese leadership’s ambitions of one day winning the World Cup. Now, that’s an offer that will be hard to refuse.