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China’s focus on football could tilt the global game on its axis

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China’s national team have long been seen as a joke, and the domestic league has never truly taken off – but all of that, and much more, could be about to change

Ajax have long been synonymous with all that is worthy in developing talent. But now the Dutch institution could be at the forefront of another trend, with Chinese investors thought to be targeting a stake in the club in the hope of unlocking the potential to grow football from the bottom up in the world’s most populous country.

There were no Chinese Super League matches in Beijing in early September because the Workers’ Stadium was storing tanks for a huge military parade.

It seemed an apt metaphor for a domestic league that has spluttered, stuttered and occasionally attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons during two decades in which Dider Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Paul Gascoigne and Sven-Goran Eriksson have passed through.

In the shadow of that same stadium, however, bars were packed late into the evening with young fans watching Premier League action.

Following a shaky start, when the Premier League ceded ground to the NBA and other European leagues by opting to show matches exclusively on pay TV, English clubs have become the means by which young middle-class Chinese choose to express themselves.

Two Premier League matches per weekend are shown free to air on China Central Television, which reaches more than 320m homes across the country. Meanwhile, it has also invested in growing its presence on Chinese social networks and websites. Football as a spectator sport is huge business.

Yet later that week, as if to demonstrate the scale of the challenge facing the sport, the Chinese national team drew 0-0 with Hong Kong to leave them third in their qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup.

Hong Kong players celebrate after they held China to a 0-0 draw in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
 Hong Kong players celebrate after they held China to a 0-0 draw in 2018 World Cup qualifying. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The result was seen by fans as the latest humiliation for the national side and an embarrassment for the country’s president, Xi Jinping, who this year published a 50-point plan to turn China into “soccer powerhouse”, proposing to overhaul the sport at every level.

“Revitalising soccer is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse as part of the Chinese dream. It is also what the people desire,” said the central reform leading group, led by Xi, who has targeted improving the “sport economy” as a key priority, even against the backdrop of recent market turmoil.

With hosting and qualifying for the World Cup finals listed as long term goals, the authorities plan to substantially increase the number of young people playing football, with the number of special “soccer schools” raised to 20,000 after five years and to 50,000 in a decade.

According to Gorden Song, who runs a private equity Chinese sports investment fund, the goal is to achieve that aim partly by encouraging investors to sink money into football academies and local clubs across the country.

“The Chinese government has decided to turn the FA into more of a social organisation,” he says over coffee in a hotel within a stone’s throw of the Bird’s Nest stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics but little used since. “It’s a big change, there will be elections for the leader and it could be a businessman rather than a state official.

“To develop faster it will focus on participation to try to grow the pyramid and grow football at different levels. In China there are no community clubs traditionally – there have been very few in the past, normally built by retired professional football players. In the last two or three years, we have seen more start.”

Traditionally there has been no football pyramid in China, because clubs were effectively banned for political reasons, with restrictions on gatherings of 10 people or more.

Shanghai Shenhua fans during their dramatic 8-7 penalty shoot-out victory over local rivals Shanghai SIPG in last month’s Chinese Cup quarter-finals.
 Shanghai Shenhua fans during their dramatic 8-7 penalty shoot-out victory over local rivals Shanghai SIPG in last month’s Chinese Cup quarter-finals. Photograph: Marcio Machado/ZUMA Press/Corbis

“How could you think about organising a football team when you couldn’t even talk to your friends?” wondered Rowan Simons in his book Bamboo Goalposts, which documented his spluttering efforts to kick-start community football in the country. Under the new scheme, the country’s football association has been separated from the State General Administration of Sports for the first time, in an attempt to give it more autonomy and the ability to determine its own staffing and resources.

“You have to develop interest and provide places to play,” says Song. “Some of the growth will come from companies investing in youth development and participation. Football is different to other sports, where you can identify talent at an early age – we call it soldier training. In football, you need a pyramid and a wide base.” This is one of the reasons why China has been able to succeed in individual Olympic sports such as table tennis and gymnastics but has struggled when it comes to football.

There is hope changes in society will also help, with parents being encouraged to consider the health of their children as well as academic achievement and the carrot of learning English from European coaches while exercising.

One fascinating spin-off from this ambitious scheme to build a football infrastructure virtually from scratch across this vast land is the potential effect in Europe.

Chinese investors were among those interested in buying Aston Villa last season. Although that approach foundered, Chinese investors have this year acquired the French second division club Sochaux and the Eredivisie side Den Haag.

Professor Simon Chadwick, the chair in sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University, believes that other similar investments are inevitable and that the rationale is as much to learn from them commercially and technically as for business reasons. Ajax are believed to be among the clubs on the radar of Chinese investors.

“The Chinese government has recently taken the decision to build the world’s biggest sport economy, which it wants to have reached $850bn in size by 2025,” says Chadwick. “At the heart of the country’s sporting investment is football, which the state is very keen to promote.

“Specifically, China would like to host and win football’s World Cup, which the country sees as being a way to assert its global status and power. As a result, both the government and corporations in China are investing in football – from the grassroots through to the elite professional level, which includes buying stakes in European football clubs.”

In China, the national side have long been a joke and the domestic Super League hit a nadir in 2009 when a match rigging scandal known as “chip shot gate” illustrated the extent to which it had become riddled with corruption.

The brittle, almost nonexistent nature of amateur and youth football in China meant that the top tier became an unhealthy combination of big money, superannuated big names and clubs used as the playthings for local businessmen.

Anelka, who had a short stint at Shanghai Shenhua, was just one who complained of “games behind my back”. For some, the CSL represented the disastrous amalgam of the worst aspects of China’s bureaucratic system and the controlled capitalism that encouraged chaotic private investment.

The country has only once qualified for the World Cup, playing in the 2002 finals, and is determined to put that right before bidding for the right to host the tournament, possibly in 2030. As Simons pointed out in his book, China is one country for which Fifa has long been prepared to overlook its “government interference” rules and this year football’s governing body renewed its “memorandum of understanding” with the state.

Brazil’s Roberto Carlos scores the first goal in a 4-0 win over China at the 2002 World Cup.
 Brazil’s Roberto Carlos scores the first goal in a 4-0 win over China at the 2002 World Cup. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images

“Before ordinary people ever actually played the game and long before European football became a lucrative TV sport, the dream of elite football success had already been hijacked by those with ulterior motives, including foreign powers, nationalist and Communist governments and, more recently, commercial enterprises,” lamented Simons.

The 50-point plan, with its emphasis on encouraging the billionaires who have sprung up in China over the past decade to sink funds into chains of private academies and facilities rather than overseas stars – and its recognition that top-down state control may not be the best way to run the sport – represents the latest attempt to set football on a new course.

Whether it can reduce the gap between rhetoric and reality and make Chinese youngsters as enthusiastic about playing as they are about consuming the sport is another question entirely.

China remains a magnet for the world’s biggest clubs when it comes to extending their brand and increasing commercial revenues, while players too are increasingly aware of the potential upside – John Terry spent the early part of his summer touring the country.

Chinese fans of Bayern Munich cheer for the team before a pre-season friendly against Internazionale in Shanghai in July.
 Chinese fans of Bayern Munich cheer for the team before a pre-season friendly against Internazionale in Shanghai in July. Photograph: Xi Ya/dpa/Corbis

But as the game’s biggest club’s continue to engage in arm’s race to reach China’s burgeoning middle classes, the trend of the country’s investors to scour Europe for clubs in which they can invest and from which they can learn is equally fascinating.

For Chadwick, the lesson from other business sectors is that China will get it right eventually. If and when it does, it could tilt the sport on its axis. “Given China’s recent record in other industrial sectors, one suspects that ongoing Chinese interest in football could well have a profound effect on the world’s favourite sport,” he concludes.

© 2015 The Guardian | This article was written by Owen Gibson first appeared on The Guardian on the 8th of September 2015

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