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China - World football superpower by 2050?

Harsh Biyani
809   //    14 Oct 2016, 17:50 IST

Ever thought about China being a world superpower in football? Ever thought about China competing with European clubs to sign players? Not just any players, players who are recognised in the market. Or how about China winning the World Cup?

The answer to all the above questions would have been a big no if asked a year ago. But that has changed. China has started to believe that everything is possible. Let’s go back a little and see where all this started from.

China last qualified for the 2002 World Cup where they lost all their games, conceding 9 and scoring none. President Xi wishes China can win the 2050 World Cup. 

The Agent – Romain Woo

Woo has played a huge role in taking Chinese Football to another level. After working in Europe with PSV Eindhoven, he moved to China to help them grow in the football sector. Presently he represents more than 50 footballers. Not only that, he has also opened his own company named “Van Hao Sports.” He is also convinced that the transfer spending spree by Chinese clubs has only started and this will boom the market.

It's going crazy right now, it's really going crazy. We have a saying that the only two players who are not coming to China right now are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The other names? It's all highly possible. I know most of the big agents in Europe and they are all trying to push their clients to China right now if they're not having a good time in Europe.

In the January transfer window, China’s transfer record was broken thrice in just 10 days. It culminated in Liverpool being beaten to the signature of Alex Teixeria when he joined Chinese Football League(CSL) side Jiangsu Suning from Shakhtar Donetsk for a fee of £38.4m.

With the country set on being at the top of their game, opportunities for some of the best domestic players going abroad are being blocked. Many clubs are also backed by huge corporations to help the government deliver its aim – be a world football super power by 2050 and prepare a team to win the World Cup. 

Three of my players got chances to go to Real Madrid, Chelsea and FC Copenhagen in the past three transfer windows. The problem is that they are way too important to their clubs here and they don’t care how big the transfer fee is.

Maybe when the  contract has expired or at another stage of Chinese Football they can go. But now it is a different stage of Chinese Football and we want to keep all our best players in the league, together with the foreigners.

The Manager – Sven-Goran Eriksson

Sven-Goran Eriksson
The former England manager feels this is the right time for football in China

Commonly referred to as “Sevennis” in Sweden, Sven is a former Swedish manager and player. Having won 18 major trophies with various clubs in Sweden, Portugal and Italy, he is the first manager to win league-and-club doubles in 3 different countries. He has also managed national teams like England, Manchester City, Roma, Ivory Cost and Mexico.

Having a manager of his calibre will not only help the players but also pave a path for Chinese clubs to prosper in the long run.

Also read: The Chinese Super League: A background on the biggest league in Asia

"Three years ago it was not like this. The football was OK. But this season it's gone crazy, totally crazy," he said.

"One of the reasons for that is the government. The president of the country is pushing for football. So I guess he's very happy to see the league is getting better and better but he wants China, as a national team, to be big, to be better in football," he added.

Eriksson also believes that Chinese football is going to get better with players being attracted to play in the Chinese Super League (CSL). "It's absolutely the right time to be in China for football," said Eriksson.

I think everybody is happy today who works with football in China. 3, 4 or 5 years ago the big foreign names were not really interested in China – only when they were getting older, on the way down. But now? Even when they are at their peak they are interested in China. It’s an exciting place to be and football is getting bigger and bigger everyday.

Some big names in China

#1 Alex Teixeira, Jiangsu Suning, £38.4m

#2 Jackson Martinez, Guangzhou Evergrande, £31m

#3 Ramiers, Jiangsu Suning, £25m

#4 Gervinho, Hebei China Fortune, £11m

#5 Demba Ba, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, £11m

#6 Asamoah Gyan, Shanghai SIPG, Undisclosed

#7 Paulinho, Guangzhou Evergrande, £10m

#8 Tim Cahill, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, Free

The source of income for all 16 CSL clubs. (Source: Simon Chadwick, Professor of sports enterprise at Salford University) 

The Fan – Cameron Wilson

The biggest spending club in China, Jiangsu Suning FC – their fans are anticipating future success as a result. The atmosphere in their stadium on the night of a CSL match against rivals Shanghai Greenland was intense. More than 50,000 supporters shouting at the top of their lungs, many waving giant flags, some even shouting in megaphones! The noise doesn’t stop for the entire 90 minutes. 

Fans play a big role in the success of any club. Cheering when the club performs well, supporting the club during its bad phase, not losing faith in the players or the manager, is what any fan is expected to do. Every small act by the fan counts. One such fan is Cameron Wilson.

As a founder of the Wild East Football Website, he believes that football provides a valuable insight into the changing nature of the society. 

Originally from Dunfermline, Scotland, he moved to China more than a decade ago and has settled with his family in Shanghai. 

The best thing about Chinese football is the fan culture – it’s magical. In the past Chinese football was corrupt and the stadiums were empty. It has been played with these problems but you had fans that love football so much they still wanted to go. 

These are people who are on the edge of the society and they are not afraid to stick their neck out a bit and be a bit different. 

And in that respect you can get a look into the future China and what kind of country it’s going to turn into. 

You get to meet the people who are daring to be a bit different and they are taking part in a sub-culture. For me, it’s been a huge privilege to see that and be a part of it.

The League Boss – Ma Chengquan

The league Boss, Ma, would be happy with the increasing popularity that CSL is gaining. Increasing fan participation would be a welcome sign for Chengquan. 

The Chinese government wants to create a £550 billion sports industry to diversify its economy. Football is the focal point for the government. 

The government wants the clubs to invest in better facilities, new pitches, and also improve their medical facility. The Chinese government wants the national team to improve its FIFA ranking. 

Also read: 20 of the best foreign players to have played in the Chinese Super League

Sitting in the boardroom of the CSL headquarters in Beijing, Ma spoke about his journey to the United Kingdom to the media. 

I travelled to London last year to visit the Premier League and (executive chairman) Richard Scudamore told me that England and China have much in common. We both have a great league, with great clubs. But our national teams do not perform as well as the country would like.

China’s first target is to qualify for the World Cup. It then plans to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030. Winning the World Cup is the ultimate goal. However, all of the above cannot happen overnight. China has already started building a football culture. More emphasis must be on producing home grown talents. 

5 years ago I couldn’t imagine what’s happening right now but we’ll definitely see a huge development in the CSL because we have so much attention from government, private sectors and investors. 

Football education and going into schools will be the key. We have public support too and that will help build a firm foundation for the future of Chinese football.

Source: Simon Chadwick

The Youth Guru – Tom Byer

Having been regarded as one of the most decorated and admired grassroots soccer coaches in the Asian region, the Chinese Football Association(CFA) appointed Tom Byer as Head Technical Advisor for the Chinese School Football Programme Office and Official CSF Grassroots Ambassador.  

Tom is currently working with the China’s Ministry of Education. He plans to promote football in schools across China to improve the quality of training and coaching of grassroots football. He plans to do this by playing coaching videos in the classroom daily. “The purpose is to empower children to practise on their own, the most meaningful skills, and basic techniques of starting, stopping and changing direction.”

One of the big things I recommend is focusing on very young kids – below the age of 6. There are 209 member association in FIFA. Only 8 have won a world cup. Why are there only a handful of countries that dominate worldwide?”

If you study football and how development takes place, it’s not so much about the coaching as it is the culture. So we need to do much better job of educating Chinese families and young children. How can they start conditioning them from a very young age on how to manipulate a football?

You can always hire and fire the best coaches in the world. You can’t hire and fire parents. You’re stuck with them. So if you understand how important the role that they play is then they are the ones you should be focusing on.

Tom understands that the process will take time but will happen eventually. It’s just a matter of time. Tom urges to focus more on the foundation level. He believes there is no shortcut for producing a strong football culture. 

The President – Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping
President Xi Jinping has plans to make China a football superpower

President Jinping has plans to make his country a football superpower, hence the reason for spending lavishly on Pelle, Hulk, etc. 

President Xi is football enthusiastic and wants his country to win the World Cup in the near future. To make his dream come true, the President has already started working on the project. 

Also read: Things India can learn from the Chinese Super League 

First, he plans to get 50 million children and adults playing football by 2020. Second, having a minimum of 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches by 2020. Third, men’s football team should become one of the best in Asia while the women’s team should be considered as a world class team by 2020. 

The President wants a huge transformation of grassroots football in China. He even visited Manchester City's new training complex during his visit last year in October to underline his commitment to the sport. 

Sergio Aguero, CSL
Aguero with Chinese President Xi and British Prime Minister David Cameron last year in October 2015(Image credits: Independent)

Ever wondered as to how China are able to spend so much without facing any difficulty. Well the answer is simple. There is no cap on spending. No maximum wage and no FFP. With no such restrictions, it just a matter of time before China break the world record. 

According to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University, “China has fallen in love with breaking world records.It is symptomatic of the Chinese Culture. They are conspicuous consumers who love to be seen to be the best and love to flaunt their wealth. A Chinese entrepreneur and their club will want to be able to say they have set a new world football transfer record and I predict that within 12 months will happen.”

Arsene Wenger on CSL spending power: “Will they sustain their desire to do it? Let’s remember, Japan started to do it a few years ago but slowed down. If it is a very strong political desire, we should worry.”
The chart shows which clubs are fan favourites for people in China. (Source: BBC)

Do you think China has what is takes to become one of world football’s superpowers? Do you think this is just the beginning for China, or will the bubble burst soon? Do you think China will ever win a World Cup? There are many unanswered questions which no one has an answer to. Only time will tell.

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