A Sino-Scottish Football Proposal

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.

president-xiIt 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.

The Proposal

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.

 

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A Man’s A Man For A’ That by Robert Burns (a Tamil Translation)

Speech delivered to the Mother Club (established 1801), Greenock Burns Club.

6th October 2016, Greenock

Good evening everyone

My name is Reza Ali.

I would like to first thank the honourable members at the Mother Club for allowing me to be here this evening.

It is indeed my privilege and my honour to be able to address this esteemed audience.

I must also of course thank the boss and my mentor, Raymond Jack, for his support and for inviting me to my first Burns Supper earlier this year which was an eye-opening experience.

I live between Singapore, Glasgow and London but am originally from the southern coast of India, from Tamil Nadu. Not unlike Robert Burns, I also come from a line of farmers!

I was based out in Glasgow for a big part of last year on work and during the time I had the opportunity to explore the different parts of Scotland and it was on one of those trips that I visited Ayrshire and explored Robert Burns’ home and got drawn into the fascinating life and times of Rabbie Burns. His depth and breadth of writing from nature to hardship to love to family demonstrated a mind and soul that was as unique as it was brilliant. His ability to recognise and more crucially to empathise with the nature of the human condition is something is what makes Robert Burns truly great.

It was then I came across the poem ‘A Man’s a Man for A That’ and was drawn to its messages of universal brotherhood, liberty and social equality.

It is also my view that Rabbie Burns’ egalitarian world view is the perfect antidote this deeply divided world needs.

It was with this in mind that I embarked on this journey of translating ‘A Man’s a Man For A That’ into Tamil as I thought promoting and propagating the virtues and ideals espoused in this poem will benefit the wider community. Tamil is the language of my birth, an ancient language, and one that is still spoken by over 70 million people today. It is my hope that this Tamil translation can be further improved by my peers and also further bring the genius and the universal and timeless messages of Robert Burns across southern India.

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With the Executive Committee of the Mother Club (L-R: Bill McCready (Past President), me, Jim Donnelly (President), Jamie Donnelly (Senior Vice President))

Robert Burns, ராபர்ட் பர்ன்ஸ்

A Man’s A Man For A’ That 

மனிதன் என்பவன் மனிதனே அதற்காகவே

(The full translation and a brief history of Tamil can be downloaded here:)

அங்கே, யாரேனும் ஏழ்மையான ஆனால் நேர்மையானவர் உள்ளனரா,

வறுமையின் காரணமாக அவர் தலை தொங்குகிறது, அதற்காகவே.

நாமும் கடக்கிறோம் அந்தக் கோழை அடிமையை,

வறுமையை விரும்ப மாட்டோம் அதற்காகவே.

அதற்க்காகவே, அதற்க்காவே.

நமது கடின உழைப்பை மறைதுவைப்போம் அதற்காகவே.

சாதனை என்பது நமக்கு தங்கத்தில் முத்திரை பதித்த முகமே,

அவன் தங்கமே அதற்காகவே.

நாம் நமது வருமானத்தில் சிறந்த உணவை உண்டாலும்,

சாம்பல்நிற முரட்டு கம்பளியை அணிந்தாலும்,

முட்டாளுக்கு கொடுங்கள் பட்டாடையும், திராட்சை ரசத்தையும்,

மனிதன் என்பவன் மனிதனே அதற்காகவே.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவர்களின் ஆடம்பர பகட்டைக் காட்டிலும்,

நேர்மையானவன், ஏழையே யாயினும்,

அவனே அரசன்.

நீ பார்க்கலாம் எஜமான் என்றழைக்கப்படும் கனவானை,

விறைப்புடனும், கர்வத்துடனும் செல்பவனை

பல நூற்றுக்கனக்காநூர் அவன் சொல்லை வணங்கினாலும்,

அவன் முட்டாலன்றி வேறில்லை.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவரது பட்டமும் பெருமையுரைக்கும் நாடவும் மற்றும் அனைத்தும்,

சுதந்திர புத்தியுள்ள மனிதன்

அதைப் பார்த்து நகைப்பான் அதற்காகவே.

ஒரு இளவரசன் உருவாக்கலாம் ஒரு வீரனை,

ஒரு கனவான், பிரப்பு, அதற்காகவே.

ஆயினும் ஒரு நேர்மையானவன் எல்லாவற்றிக்கும் மேல்,

நன் நம்பிக்கையை, அவன் அதற்காக குறை செய்யக்கூடாது.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவர்கள் தங்கள் கடப்படுகளுக்காகவும் அதற்காகவே.

மற்றும் உணர்வு மற்றும் பெருமை மற்றும் மதிப்பும் வலிமையும்,

தங்கள் உயரதிகாரம் மேல் என்று அதற்காகவே.

நாம் அனைவரும் பிரார்த்தனை செய்வோம் அது நடகட்டுமென்று,

எல்லாவற்றிற்கும் அது நடக்கட்டுமென்று அதற்காகவே,

உலகமெல்லாம் உள்ள உணர்வும், மதிப்பும்,

அதற்கான பரிசை பெற வேண்டும், அதற்காகவே.

அதற்காகவே, அதற்காகவே.

அவையனைத்தும் இன்னும் வருமென்று அதற்காகவே.

உலகிலுள்ள எல்லா மனிதர்களும்,

சகோதர்களாக இருப்போம் அதற்காகவே.

Revitalising Scottish Football – a 10-point proposal

As a big fan of Scottish football for a while (I’ve been following Celtic since I was at university!), it has been sad to watch the decline of the game in Scotland over the last couple of decades.

I have been giving further thought as to what could be done to revitalise the game in Scotland and to inject vigour and excitement back into one of the old leagues in the world. Lest we forget, it was a Scottish team (Celtic) that was the first amongst British teams to win the European Cup; the largest attendance for a European game was at the 1970 European Cup Semi-Final at Hampden Park where over 130,000 fans watched the game; and one of the largest attendance for an international fixture was between Scotland and England when almost 150,000 fans watched the game! Scottish football has also provided other moments of magic. Indeed the jinking run made by Archie Gemmill as he scored against Holland in the 1978 World Cup remains one of the best goals ever seen in an international game.

I have a number of suggestions and initiatives which may support raising the global profile of Scottish football and in the process rejuvenate the league and raise the game.

1. Leverage off the tradition and history of Scottish football teams

The story of Celtic – a club established in 1888 by Brother Walfrid with a clear purpose of raising money for charity and alleviating the crippling poverty witnessed in the East End of Glasgow – is one that will resonate significantly across many societies and cultures in many parts of the world. Certainly the Confucian principles under which Celtic was set up will be a big draw in East Asia, if only more people knew more about it.

On the other hand, we have Rangers, another illustrious Glaswegian club with a rich sense of history. Together, Celtic and Rangers, or the Old Firm as they collectively know, form one of the world’s most enduring and exciting rivalries in football. The differences in social ideology, a rivalry that has lasted over a century and the collective successes of both clubs are huge sources of excitement for anyone anywhere in the world, regardless of background or creed.

It will be important for Scottish football teams to draw out their rich and vibrant histories and backgrounds and promote and sell a compelling story to the world! Where Scotland is concerned, there has always been a sense of romance, and perhaps it is this which Scottish football clubs should appeal to.

2. Host an Old Firm derby (or friendly) outside of the UK – possibly in China, Japan, India, Indonesia or in North America

The Old Firm derbies have always evoked a lot of passion and there is a certainly a rich sense of history to the games between Celtic and Rangers. One suggestion is for these derbies to be played outside of the UK in places like China, Japan (where Scottish football is already popular thanks to Japanese superstars like Nakamura), India or Indonesia or perhaps somewhere in North America where there is a strong Scottish diaspora present.

It will be important to invest in the marketing and promotion of the history of the Old Firm, the rivalry and the passion, so that people buy into the history which I’ve alluded to in point #1 above. Global football fans love a sense of history and if they can be educated on the excitement which is the Old Firm derby, it will be extremely popular and it will create an interest in the Scottish game which will result in positive externalities for the whole of Scottish football.

It is important for Scottish football to project and market itself beyond her current shores and capitalising on stories such as that of the Old Firm derbies will be an important part of that process.

3. Greater focus on youth and grassroots development (and innovative approaches around youth development)

Focus must also be paid to effective talent management and retention of youth footballers. The Scottish Football Association certainly has taken a lead in ensuring that the game reaches out at a grassroots level and youngsters across schools are being developed and talent spotted. Certainly this has to continue to ensure that the national team has a steady pipeline of talented football coming through the ranks. There should be further adoption of best practices from other successful youth academies such as the Dutch youth development schemes as well as from clubs such as Barcelona which has a world class development programme under the La Masia academy which has produced world class talent over the years. There has to be a focus on technical development towards individual improvement as well as a focus on unified team excellence.

Highly promising youngsters should also be sent on loan to other youth development programmes at other clubs and even continents to gain further exposure. They must be fully supported to ensure they develop with both footballing and academic skillsets which will support them throughout their lives.

4. Scottish U-21 national team or Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers U-21 or ‘B’ teams to participate in emerging Asian leagues

Increasingly, we also see youth national teams participate in other leagues. For instance, the Singapore U-23 team participates in the Malaysian League and likewise the Malaysian youth team participates in the Singaporean Premier League. This has led to increased exposure for the younger players and has also helped to lay the foundations for the senior national teams.

One suggestion is for the Scottish U-21 national team or perhaps the U-21 or U-23 teams at the leading Scottish teams to participate in emerging Asian leagues in Asia (potentially Southeast Asia or South Korea, China or Japan). This will give greater exposure for the Scottish youth players whilst also providing them with the opportunity to pit their skills against senior and more experienced professionals. This will raise the quality of the game which will ultimately benefit the Scottish national team. It also will help to act as a strong brand agent for Scottish football and clubs in the countries they are playing in which will in turn drive greater interest for the Scottish game. Raising the visibility of Scottish football will be significantly easier through an initiative such as this.

5. Scottish football teams to engage international student societies in leading Scottish universities

I became a fan of Scottish football and Celtic when I was at university and it has remained an enduring and lasting relationship. I have remained a Celtic fan and have attended games where possible and also spent (considerable!) amounts on kits and souvenirs. I have also been a passionate advocate of Scottish football to friends around the world.

I do believe that if Scottish football clubs appeal to particularly the international student societies at the leading Scottish Universities such as Glasgow University, Uni of Strathclyde, Uni of Edinburgh, etc and provide heavily discounted or free tickets to students at universities, it will create a greater interest and participation by the international students of Scottish universities. These students will also return home to spread the word of the excitement of Scottish football and will become active ambassadors who will promote Scottish clubs and football and this will increase the visibility of the league and teams in Scotland.

Building an interest in the game at a local grassroot level is important and building it at an international level will require active global ambassadors and what better ambassadors than a young person from beyond Scottish shores whose imagination and passion has been captured.

6. Capitalise on Scotland’s greater international profile (off a very successful Commonwealth Games and the increased publicity as a result of the Independence Referendum)

Over the last year, Scotland has gained even more extensive international prominence in the eyes of the world. A hugely successful Commonwealth Games has helped to project Glasgow and Scotland in a very positive manner to viewers from around the world. Likewise, the very exciting Independence Referendum (please see a separate article here around the positive impact the referendum has had here) has also catapulted Scotland into the centre of world affairs. Scottish football should leverage from the positive goodwill accrued and use it to project her achievements and the history and gain further traction in the international arena.

7. Negotiate separate deals with Asian TV broadcasters 

Scottish football should also consider negotiating separate deals with national broadcasting companies in Asia, going beyond the current SKY/BT Sport models. One possible way of doing this is rather than selling entire football packages, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) should consider a weekly 1-hour highlights programme which they edit (where the best of the week’s footballing content is captured) and sold to national TV companies across Asia and Europe which will create further excitement about Scottish football and also creates an additional revenue stream which benefits all the teams in the Scottish leagues.

If some of the other points here are implemented and there is a greater interest in Scottish football, it will allow for the SPFL to have a stronger hand in negotiating contracts and TV deals.

8. Twinning programme with other European clubs

Scottish football teams should consider formal twinning arrangements with clubs across Europe. For instance, Celtic could consider twinning with Barcelona, Abderdeen with Roma, Rangers with Juventus (given similar histories in their rise from lower leagues following demotion), etc.

The twinning arrangements could consider exchange of youth players, sharing of marketing, development of junior teams, charity matches and the sharing of best practices. This will allow for Scottish football clubs to implement and adopt global best practices in team and club management. The twinning arrangement could also extend to fans (where fans attend games of their twin clubs) and create greater camaraderie and friendship across borders.

This will lead to a greater level of dialogue and cross-cultural interactions which benefit not just the football teams but also the people behind the various teams. The exchange of youth players also aids in the player development which ultimately benefits both the Scottish clubs as well as the national team. It also improves the scouting network of Scottish teams which will again improve the quality and standard of players within the Scottish leagues.

9. Recommendation for an annual British Cup (featuring the top teams from the Home nations)

This idea may have been mooted before but it may be worth revisiting. There could be an end of season tournament each year where the top two teams from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland along with the respective FA Cup finalists taking part in a knockout tournament. Potentially this could see Manchester City, Liverpool, Celtic, Motherwell, Cliftonville, Linfield, The New Saints and Broughton all taking part in a knockout tournament (with each team playing each other only once at a stadium decided by a draw), leading to a semi-finals and then a final where the British Champions are crowned. This has significant potential for a global audience and will spur interest and support from not only the respective countries taking part, but also raise publicity for the lesser known clubs and unearth heroes who were hitherto unknown!

10. International and localised branding and marketing

Finally, in addition to some of the points highlighted above, once Scottish football and clubs have decided on target markets they are keen to extend their reach in, they should consider local language websites, collateral and more active publicity and branding campaigns in these countries. They should also consider adapting to different pricing structures for the sales of kit and collateral items to reach out to a larger target audience. They could do this through the kit partners (such as Nike, Reebok, etc) initially and then subsequently also consider setting up their own shops. These will have the effect of driving further revenue streams and also more importantly drive greater awareness and build brand recognition in the countries they are in.

Conclusion

The above suggestions could potentially go someway towards addressing some of the more pressing needs of Scottish football today. The suggestions individually may not have the desired impact, but collectively could reinforce Scottish football further and create the impetus required to grow and develop further.

I do fundamentally believe that Scottish football can punch beyond its weight and be a real force in European and world football. Ambition reinforced with vision and urgency will allow Scottish football to achieve its aims and collective goals.