The voice of experience
Updated: 2014-04-05 07:59
By Luis Liu (China Daily)
Fan Zhiyi, one of 'the boys of 2002', wants to help chart plans for the future
Editor's note: Soccer is the world's No 1 sport, and China has its own aims for the game. President Xi Jinping has spoken about his soccer dream: China reaching the World Cup, China hosting the Cup and, ultimately, China winning the coveted trophy. However, the nation still lags far behind in the soccer world. The 2014 Brazil World Cup is just around the corner and we have selected 11 key figures from around the country to tell us about their soccer dreams. The interviews will be on RTHK Putonghua Channel at 4 pm on Sundays through June 8.
Generosity is synonymous with Fan Zhiyi, the first Chinese to win Asian Footballer of the Year. He has been widely known as "big brother", even from his childhood in the nongtangs in Shanghai.
Fan has a charisma that makes people want to follow him.
"Whenever I gave a shout, boys in the neighborhood would immediately gather and start playing soccer," Fan recalled of his childhood days. "And then I would buy each of them a bowl of wonton."
That habit has not changed through the years. Some sports reporters fondly recall that during road trips Fan would join them for a chat in the hotel lobby and buy them coffee.
Upon his arrival in the United Kingdom, Fan quickly won the respect of his Crystal Palace teammates. After his first training session, he paid for everyone's meal.
"It was just McDonald's, no big deal," Fan said. "I often did the same thing in China."
On another occasion, Fan was hanging out with several teammates in a pub and picked up the bill for the entire evening - again reinforcing his reputation as the "big brother".
Eventually he became captain of the side which, considering the cultural differences and language barrier, might be one of the biggest achievements for a Chinese footballer abroad.
"Those were only small things," Fan said, with a dismissive wave of his hands. "You don't get the rewards until you prove yourself capable on the pitch.
"You can imagine what it was like; I went there and took a job and I actually earned more than them, so I had to work harder to earn their respect."
Fan still misses the atmosphere and camaraderie of soccer in England.
"Teammates will definitely pass you the ball if you earn their trust through your performance," he said.
For a player with such a strong personality, skeptics felt he would struggle to integrate abroad. But Fan said he had a tougher time playing in China than Britain.
"It is all simple and straightforward in England," he said. "Until I spent those six years abroad, I didn't really know what soccer was all about."
With his unique experience, Fan might be the most appropriate person to evaluate the state of the Chinese game.
"Soccer in China is lagging far behind, but I am not discouraged because our professional league is only 20 years old," he said.
To illustrate the gap, he cites player salaries.
"The great (foreign) clubs all took a long journey to reach their status, many over 100 years," he said.
"For instance, when the English leagues were launched, a top player's wage was five pounds. From five pounds to 200,000 pounds, what has happened? It is not only about money, but a systematic process. The priority should be on how we can learn from the whole system.
"People say the grass is greener on the other side of the globe than on China's pitches - and I agree. But that did not happen overnight. We can also achieve greatness if we keep working and get down to business."
Fan believes poor administration is a key factor in holding back Chinese soccer.
The 2002 World Cup was seen as the launch of a golden era here, but it merely marked the start of a depressing slide.
Twelve years later, China is regarded as, at best, the sleeping giant of Asian soccer and, at worst, a laughing stock.
"We have had talented players, many talented players, but we have wasted their talents," Fan said.
"I always believe, if everything goes well, in 12 years we can form a mature national team from the youth groups. If so, we won't miss any more World Cup finals."
Precisely because of those high expectations, Fan was furious in a famous interview after the team's humiliating 5-1 loss to Thailand in 2013.
He criticized Zhao Peng, then China's captain, saying Zhao and some others were not qualified to be national team players.
Fan's frank comments caused an uproar in local soccer circles.
"Yes, I said those words, but it was nothing personal," he said. "Zhao was not doing what a captain should do. That triggered my anger."
The majority of netizens agreed, but Fan said it was not all Zhao's fault.
"We didn't have enough choices because we messed up our youth training," Fan said.
"We wasted a lot of talent. Youth development is fundamental. We need to nurture the young players and follow strict sets of rules.
"That consists of many elements such as a regimented training system, facilities and education. It has to be comprehensive and we have to follow our own path."
But who will lead the way down that path?
"We, the 2002 boys, are the best candidates." Fan said.
"We have been through failures and success. We have tasted the bitter and the sweet. But there are too few opportunities for us to dedicate our experience to Chinese soccer."
Fan envies some of his peers in South Korea who have assumed roles with that country's top teams. Choi Yong-soo (head coach of Seoul FC), Hong Myung-bo (head coach of South Korea's national team) and Hwang Sun-hong (head coach of Pohang Steelers) enjoyed the same sort of fame as Fan in East Asian soccer back at the turn of the century. But then their paths diverged.
Though disappointed, Fan still maintains his faith. "All I need is a platform to make use of the knowledge I have acquired throughout my career," he said. "I am prepared."
Chinese defender Fan Zhiyi goes up for a header during a match at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. Reuters
(China Daily 04/05/2014 page12)