Understanding China's football dilemma.
Part 1 of 3: The Football Development Plan.
Almost 5 years ago, President Xi Jing Ping announced a set of highly ambitious plans to transform Chinese Football. President Xi hoped Chinese football could be one of the world’s most competitive and attractive professional leagues, and set about implanting new legislation which would focus on improving the competitiveness and quality of Chinese football for years to come.
President Xi, an avid football fan, has longed for China to become a great footballing superpower, and has often mixed the world’s most popular sport with politics. China’s soft power strategy has used football as a vehicle for securing strategic opportunities in regions of interest through state wealth funds and private sector acquisitions. During the past five years, a number of Europe’s most elite football clubs have been taken over by Chinese owned companies or received some form of investment.
President Xi is not shy in revealing his ambitious plans for Chinese football, and the development of the greater Chinese sports industry. His ultimate objective is the holy grail of national football, for China to win the FIFA World Cup. And no, not the video game. In 2015, President Xi stated “The Three World Cup Dreams”. The first, would be for China to qualify for the World Cup. Xi’s second World Cup dream is for China to be the host nation, and stage the world cup. Finally, and probably the most ambitious of the three, for China to be crowned Champions. No small task by any means, and this is to be achieved by 2050. Hence, the appropriately named FDP 2015-2050.
Xi’s footballing initiative become know as The Football Development Plan (FDP 2015-2050), which is very precise with clear short, medium- and long-term goals.
President Xi’s announcement to the nation and the world was met with applause by passionate Chinese football fans. Chinese football had suffered controversy after controversy for the past 2 decades, the national leagues were in disarray with corruption and match fixing scandals, and the league was failing to attract investment. The national team was an embarrassment and disgrace to many Chinese fans, plagued by humiliating defeats to lower ranked nations, and sub-par performances. President Xi’s announcement was a wakeup call for top government officials of Chinese sport, and the Chinese Football Association, whom which, were considered by many, as not fit for purpose. President Xi had made developing Chinese football a national directive, with orders trickling down from China’s top policy makers, the Politburo. Xi’s announcement was immediately backed by financial muscle, and resources, as the central government and General Administration for Sport began pouring in funds to revolutionise Chinese football.
But the question was, where do we start?
2015-2050 Football Development Goals
By 2020 -
20,000 specialised football schools to be established
70,000 football pitches created
30 to 50 million children practicing football each week
By 2030 -
50,000 specialised football schools
China’s mens team to be one of the best in Asia
China’s women’s team to be established as “world class”
By 2050 -
China mens team to rank top 20 in FIFA nations standings
Host the World Cup
Won the World Cup
A behemoth task
The General Administration for Sport and the Education Bureau determined the focus of the China’s football rejuvenation should rightly be placed on developing young talent. Their objective was to feed China's professional leagues and the national team for years to come. The Ministry of Education focused on a grassroots development program going by the name of the Chinese Schools Football program (CSF). The objectives of this program were detailed and clearly outlines: develop a football culture within schools, raise social awareness of Chinese football, and to develop elite talent at specialised football school. Top government officials set about appointing a technical advisor to spearhead their ambitious plans. They needed someone respected globally in grassroots football, who also had experience in developing other Asian territories with great success. Tom Byer was appointed Head Technical Advisor, poached from bitter arch rivals, Japan. Tom Byer is an American born, iconic Japanese TV personality, who started his professional playing career in the US before transitioning to the Japanese Leagues. When not on the field, Byer was often on TV, a recognized Japanese household name, known as “tomsan”. Byer, appeared in Manga comics, and created his own range of books and DVDs. And of course, his own grassroots football academy, which has been the cornerstone for driving elite Japanese youth players, such as Ex Manchester United winger Shinji Kagawa, and women’s national team captain, Homare Sawa.
The China School Football Program (CSF) was initiated, with Tom Byer tasked with developing a mass multimedia initiative similar to his previous success in Japan. His focus would be developing young players from 3 years onwards, starting in the home. Online video courses, books and supporting materials were issued to teachers, schools, parents and students. The CSF program understood all too well that any success would be dependent upon the full support and understanding of parents and students. The sticking point would be, customarily, parents downplay participation in sports in favor of core subject extracurricular studies. The CSF program would need to address this foremost, backed by government media outlets and the private sector, the message was pushed out across the country on social media, print media and mobile apps. The private sector gained access to a mass open market supported by directives issued from the highest of governance. The CSF initiative was in full swing, creating 20,000 specialised football schools/academies in China by 2020. 70,000 playing fields and 30 to 50 million children, of primary and middle school age, practicing football each week.
In order to achieve the Football Development Plan objectives, the Chinese government relies heavily upon the private sector to develop social, economic and development interests’ home and abroad. Some of China’s wealthiest companies have invested heavily in Chinese and International football enterprises since the plan’s conception. Wanda Group 500 million RMB over 3 years invested in Chinese Football, Alibaba FIFA World Cup Sponsors, Suning off-shore investment in European football - Inter Milan, Rastar Group off-shore investment in European football - Slavia Prague, Fusun off-shore investment in European football - Wolves and investment partnership with super-agent Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute, Evergrande Real Estate 100RMB annually for 10 years invested in Chinese Football.
The China Schools Football Program and Football Development Plan initiatives has led to a significant rise in private sector investments, with a number of foreign based entities also securing a fixed presence in China. Either through outright ownership or joint ventures with local companies or investors. You might have guessed, some of Europe’s top football clubs have either ran, visited or even established a foothold in China. To name a few: European football clubs currently operating an academy or partnership in China.
PSG, Juventus, Inter Milan (7) Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund BvBEvonik, Liverpool, Manchester United.
Ajax recently partnered with 2019 Chinese Super League champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, in southern China, the aim of this 5 year partnership is for Guangzhou to be the leading football academy in China. Edwin van der sar AFC Ajax CEO stated, “the APAC market is booming in all aspects and with full of potential. With more intensive presence, we believe in the future of Ajax’ development in Asia Pacific.”. China also provides big opportunities for Europe’s biggest league operators. LaLiga, Premier Skills (EPL) Seria A and Bundesliga have all at some point, conducted business in China by providing coaching workshops or training, either to Chinese coaches and public-school projects. All in accordance to assist the Chinese CSF and FDP objectives. In return, they promote the brand of their leagues, and collect revenue through lucrative international broadcasting deals to air live fixtures or extended highlights.
The Football Development Plan attracted global media attention in 2015. The Chinese sports industry was welcoming public sector investment, which would require foreign employees to cater to the Chinese consumer. An influx of foreign coaches arrived in the years following, switching the comforts of their home for a new experience, change of culture and to line their pockets. The coaching deficit during 2015 -2016 was mostly supported by professional footballing organizations from Europe sending qualified coaches to China. The Chinese government maintains a hands off approach to regulating the industry and setting minimum standards, allowing a free market for private investment within the sports industry. This has lead to significant investment opportunity for businesses, investors and entrepreneurs. Though, with any open market, bad practices appear.
The Chinese football ecosystem is booming and new businesses are popping up each and every day, covering all areas of China, delivering coaching sessions to schools and recreationally. Reports circulated of foreign coaches with falsified credentials, incorrect visa's and coaches with little to no knowledge of the game. Foreign students studying at Chinese universities were skipping classes in favor of paid coaching opportunities. Foreign football clubs to showed little interest. Backed by Chinese investors, the professional football clubs which had established a foot hold in China, usually through a Joint Venture, cared little about what was happening at the licensed camps and facilities in China. The standards and quality associated with historic clubs throughout Europe were awash. The goal was to generate income from merchandise and training, little interest was shown in developing talent. The day to day running of the academies was left to the investors, and standards slip in favor of chasing revenues.
It a nutshell, time will tell whether China can qualify for a world cup. Without being the host nation. However, I am confident that at least one, and maybe the most realistic objective will be achieved by China. Hosting the World Cup. I believe China has, and is, making great progress in its goal to become a footballing powerhouse. Though, the struggles will continue for some time, as the worst is not over, yet. Tom Byer is a remarkable asset, but no magician, limited in ability to influence and encourage an entire nation. What worked in Japan, hasn’t fully been achieved in China so far. What is lacking is passion, and that's abundantly difficult to install into someone via some books or the internet. Passion for me, is installed through attending games, playing football, sharing moments with friends, and definitely, family.
How the Ministry of Education defines a China School Football program school is slightly dubious too. When reading the initial headlines “China to create 20,000 specialised football schools by 2020” one might picture a mass building project. Well, that's not exactly the case. Existing public schools can apply for the designated title of: specialist football school, as part of the CSF program, through a points-based system. Points are awarded based on equipment, facilities, staff, number of lessons, minimum funding per student for sports, and school’s ideology and objectives towards sports. There are a few other indicators too. Overall, a CSF school must have 90 points to gain status. Usually, the “staff”, are trained PE teachers. Some may have specialised in football at some stage, but most commonly, are not highly qualified or experienced football coaches, whose only purpose is developing grassroots football. More often than not, these teachers are often teaching football one lessons, then, tennis or another sport the next. This leaves an impressionable question mark hovering above “is this really a specialised football school at all”?
Qualified staff, coaches, PE teachers need to continually develop their talents, through personal development programs, and their work needs assessment and review. At present, review and assessment remain under the attention of each school, and there in-house assessment process. But above all, the CSF initiative is missing elite advisors to audit the schools, the coaches and the local FA. More support is needed from the professional football clubs, In my opinion, that's where the missing link is. The professional clubs.
Scouts are enigma in China and rarely attend competitions or competitive matches. And what constitutes a professional scout in China is difficult to comprehend. This is mainly down to the professional football clubs and the local football association not having effective processes in place. In order to recognize and identify talent, China will need an army the size of a small nation of talent identification scouts whom go far and wide to identify potential talent. This includes visiting CSF registered schools regularly. So far, the responsibility has rested upon the shoulders of the local football association, and by no fault of their own are limited in their capabilities. Local professional clubs should be working more effectively with the local FA in identifying talent, providing a natural pathway for elite talent to enter local clubs. Furthermore, a clearly defined roadmap needs establishing to show how young talent can progress from the CSF program or private academies into a professional academy set-up. To date, no suchlike plan exists. And its extremely difficult for young Chinese children to make the jump.
The memories and headlines of past are strong at the forefront of parent’s minds, of whom continue to guide children towards extra-curricular study than recreational sports. Before any milestones can be gauged or achieved, this obstacle will need to be overcome through improved understanding and parental education. Many parents feel football and its ecosystem will do little to support their children as a professional occupation. Local communities in Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities lack municipal recreation areas, where children can play freely and develop a passion and love for sport. In comparison to Europe, the concrete jungles and congested tarmacked roads offer little support or opportunity for children to play and develop sporting abilities.
Follower, Fan, Supporter Lacking the passion, young Chinese children are followers, often of famous European football teams, rather than local clubs, and are not supporters. many of whom have never experienced the match day experiences shared with going to watch your favorite team, at the local ground, with father or grandpa. But, on the other hand, the CSL does little to encourage or welcome change. The Chinese Super League is by any means perfect. Regulation, de-regulation and now back in the hand of the Chinese Football Association, CFA. Continued changes in regulation, and frequently cases example of clubs’ financial ruin and mismanagement by senior executives. Chinese League clubs have failed to truly connect with their supporters. As a result, Chinese football clubs often suffer from dwindling attendances, and minimal merchandise sales. Stadiums half full and no identity within the local community. Chinese matchday experiences are a far fetch from the dominating and deafening football stands of European football. Memories of scandals, corruption and mis management linger at the forefront of a league tarred in controversy.
Look out for Part Two: Understanding the Chinese Football Dilemma: The Chinese Super League