Building Chinese football from the base up

July 8, 2014 by Denis Green

The failure of China’s national team to qualify for this year’s FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil has sparked some soul searching among the country’s avid football fans who want to see the world’s most populous nation participate in the world’s most popular sport. Amid the finger pointing about who is to blame for the Chinese team’s weak record, the solution remains a complex matter, stymied by the forces of both politics and parenting.

Organizations and clubs are now looking to end the problems that have disrupted China’s efforts to become a recognized football nation and made its game a byword for corruption. Last year was possibly the low point, following a three-year inquiry into match-fixing, the gaoling of more than 50 players and officials, huge fines and clubs stripped of their titles.

Rejecting the dominance of large, corporate clubs, often owned by wealthy businessmen and with almost no authentic fan base, there is now a move to use the same template used by amateur clubs in the UK more than a century ago. No-one is promising a quick fix, but anything is better, so the argument goes, than the present situation.

So just what is being done to put China back on the world footballing map? First, the old system, based around the Chinese Football Association and local football governing bodies, is widesly regarded as not fit for purpose. These governing bodies have yet to even establish a department for grassroots football, says Rowan Simons, chairman of China ClubFootball FC, a grassroots organisation that is attempting to fill the gap left by the big clubs, who are not concerned about the grassroots game.

“Many see the definition of grassroots football as ‘elite junior development’,” he told China Outlook. “In many cases, the local FAs have washed their hands of involvement in adult amateur football altogether, citing frequent fighting as the main reason. Adult amateurs will never bring glory to the nation, so are seen as useless by the football system and troublesome by social administration departments.”

The government has launched several campaigns and received significant funding from philanthropists to take football into schools. Simons believe these are positive moves, but fail at the grassroots level due mainly to the lack of qualified coaches: “A school may embrace campus football and introduce football into the curriculum, but it is taught by sports teachers with no football experience”, he says. “I have seen such programmes in practice and they tend to use the football as a baton to be passed between team mates. After a couple of years of such ‘play’, it is very hard for Chinese youngsters ever to catch up with their international counterparts”.

As chairman of China ClubFootball, Simons has a clear vision as to where he would like to see the game go. “Once we concluded that the system had inherent problems, we undertook to start all over again and re-build football as the People’s Game from the bottom up. We used the same template as amateur clubs in the UK over 100 years ago. That is, incorporate as a limited liability company and build according to the membership model,” he said.

ClubFootball has ensured that it works independently of the CFA and stand above and separate from all the corruption and bribery that has so infamously blighted Chinese football. In addition, they only accept coaches with qualifications from leading European football associations and pair them with a Chinese-speaking assistant coach. This in turn enables them to promote their ‘Play football, Speak English’ slogan. For Simons and ClubFootball, the English component has been key in convincing Chinese parents that there is real educational value there. “Once kids start playing, the benefits of football itself start to shine through,” said Simons.

In addition to its amateur leagues, ClubFootball now runs a sponsored 5-a-side knockout competition in Beijing in July and August for 48 local amateur teams, as well as women’s training and tournaments and weekend soccer schools and clinics for kids.

China has struggled when it comes to producing world-class football players, mainly due to the top-down control across all areas of Chinese sport, which is a legacy of Mao-era central planning. China’s Sports Law means that neither the CFA nor the local FAs act as representative associations for football’s stakeholders, which means they are in direct breach of the FIFA Constitution.

Instead, the FA leaders are appointed by the government, they seldom come from a footballing background and only remain in their positions for four-five years. For them, this is just another administrative job in a career as a party functionary. They want quick fixes that make them look good so they can continue their political careers.

Simons says anyone can see the weaknesses of a system that has no place for longer-term solutions: “Since long-term solutions will not succeed during the tenure of the incumbent, they are discarded every time,” he said. “We are left with a series of short-term campaigns, with the same non-solutions tried again and again”. He points out that in sharp contrast, Japan has a 50-year football plan.

He believes that junior development is pivotal in nurturing young talent. However, as with many other sports in China, the problem with the existing system is over-specialisation at too young an age. The Chinese system identifies and selects children at very young ages and enrols them in specialist football schools. Everyone else is ignored. Gradually the pool of talent is refined and reduced, leading to many talented kids being thrown out and discarded, often with no chance to re-join the sport later. This tiny pool of players is then force-fed football, often to the detriment of other studies, until they either make it as a pro or are sent back home.

While this model has been successful in some minority sports, it does not work in football, where the most successful competing nations can draw on millions of football-playing youngsters at the bottom of the pyramid. For example, leading English Premier League clubs say that they need a pool of 200,000 young players in their scouting networks to produce just one top class player.

A second area of concern is the lack of respect for sport within the education system, which has seen a majority of students bypass sporting opportunities in order to gain high academic test results. Simons believes over-cosseting parents are responsible for the neglect of sport during education: “There is a great fear among parents of injuries to their (often) only child that may affect their other studies. By contrast, I think most western parents, while worrying for their kids, feel that learning to deal with knocks is an important part of teaching the reality of life and see that the benefits generally far out-weigh the risks,” he stated.

A lack of facilities is another issue holding back youth football development, especially in Beijing. The capital hosts only about 80 football pitches, compared to over 3,000 in London. Land for football has been taken over by buildings and other high revenue uses due to China’s expansive industrial development. Rental prices mean it is now impossible to operate sustainable football facilities in urban areas without the support of a government subsidy.

Sadly, Beijing has more golf clubs than football clubs and over 1,000 tennis courts (including 400 indoor courts), showing how elite sports have grown even as popular mass participation sports have been discouraged. This is a powerful symbol of the inequalities that have emerged in China through reform.

Many youth development organisations and clubs in China have seen a big increase in the numbers of young Chinese kids playing football, but this drops very significantly when they reach junior middle school. Parents tell ClubFootball that they send their young kids to play because there will be no time for that later, when they will have to concentrate on their studies. By contrast, many western parents see football as a part of education all the way through life.

If China wants to make it to the next World Cup finals, it will need strong political determination to invert the current top-down model and to hone new talent. Just as important is the need to encourage parents to see that sport is more than simply a social activity on the way to a successful education.

One comment on “Building Chinese football from the base up”

  1. Danny Young says:

    Very enlightening article, could not agree more about over-specialisation being the wrong way to train footballers.

    Clubs need a vast pool of players to select from and in many cases players don’t even begin to show signs of maturity until much later in their junior career.

    As for the proffesional game, it would be very interesting to see if the Chinese Superleague followed the big money=big stars approach of the IPL Cricket or the US MLS structure.

    The approach appears to be paying off, if only at a level of attracting fans. Teams need to win over hearts before taking on the international game.

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