In 2004, Manchester United signed young Chinese forward Dong Fangzhuofrom what was then China’s most successful club Dalian Shide. Dong did not qualify for a work permit so was farmed out to Royal Antwerp for three encouraging seasons. But, after he landed back in England, he made only one league appearance for the Red Devils in an end of season game after the title had been already clinched.
European clubs are still looking for the first Chinese football superstar but pretty much everything else has changed. Dalian Shide no longer exist and now Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs are about to start sending their own young prospects to Europe.
Last week Shanghai SIPG signed a deal with Royal Antwerp to follow a similar agreement they already have with German side Hamburg.
Shanghai SIPG, second in the 2015 CSL and coached by Sven Goran-Eriksson, have made these deals in order to grow. But it works both ways. For the Chinese side, established in 2005, it gives their young players (and coaches) access to top-level youth development systems. While for the Europeans, Shanghai are a high-profile partner in what could become the most lucrative football market in the world.
Mads Davidsen is assistant coach at Shanghai but also the technical director of the team’s youth academy. The Dane has helped to craft a vision called “The SIPG Way” which charts a path to producing better players. He believes that the opportunities to go overseas could be of huge benefit for players, club and, ultimately, country.
“You have to be 18 under FIFA rules to change continents but there are players here in Shanghai’s U18 and U19 teams who are good but not quite ready for the first-team yet,” Davidsen told ESPN FC.
“This is a good idea and one way of developing players in a different environment. They could stay home and wait for the chance but you never know what will happen. If they go abroad, it is not just about the training and the football, it can develop their personality. They have to take care of themselves when they are far from home and what they know. We can see how they get on both on and off the pitch.”
It is no accident that Shanghai chose deals with Antwerp and Hamburg; all three are famous and historic port cities with plenty in common. SIPG, the club’s owners, stands for Shanghai International Port Group, a company that has non-football interests of its own in Hamburg.
“Hamburg and Shanghai have been friendly cities for 50 years so there is more to it than just football, there is a political side too,” said Davidsen. “There may be more to come.”
It can be a source of frustration for those working in Chinese football that the world has focused on the famous stars such as Alex Teixeira, Ramires, Jackson Martinez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Fredy Guarin and others who arrived during the winter transfer window. During that period, CSL clubs spent more than any other league in the world and Shanghai got in on the act with the biggest signing of the summer: €56 million paid to Zenit St Petersburg forBrazilian international Hulk.
It was another headline-making move but Davidsen would like to see more attention given to other aspects of Chinese football.
“These kinds of youth deals are just as important as the signings,” he insisted. “When I talk to the club, I tell them that the winners in Chinese football in the future will be those that develop the best local players.”
The rules state that Chinese Super League clubs are only allowed to field four foreign players at any one time, one of which must be Asian. “We all have to play with seven Chinese players,” he added. “All the clubs can sign top foreign talent so the key is to produce better players.”
Deals such as Hamburg and Antwerp could prove crucial and the two clubs now joins a growing list of European teams with Chinese connections. Some links are stronger than others.
Atletico Madrid are already 20 percent Chinese-owned; this summer Suning Holdings group bought a 70 percent stake in Inter Milan; while city rivals AC Milan were sold to a Chinese consortium. In England, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers are famous old teams that are now in Chinese hands. In France, it is Nice.
The profile and influence of the Chinese game is growing in other ways too. Games are now shown on UK broadcaster Sky Sports, one of over 50 countries where fans can now watch the best that the CSL has to offer — not bad for a tournament that was disregarded by most football fans at home a decade ago and little-known even in Asia.
The government is helping: major investments are being made in the youth development system and school football.
Many of the deals to buy players, clubs or make other connections in Europe are done with the short-term and long-term benefit of Chinese football in mind. It is all about helping the league to grow and the country to flourish — giving it the best chance to host the World Cup and produce top quality players for the world game.
“It is all a part of the development of Chinese football,” said Davidsen. “You are buying know-how and influence on all different levels. This is all part of the plan to make China a better football country. It will take time and hard work but everything is being put into place.”
© 2016 ESPN FC | This article was written by John Duerden and first appeared on the ESPN FC website on 29 August 2016.