Kicking off a whole new approach

By Wang Zijiang | China Daily | Updated: 2017-03-08 07:31

How long-term thinking can help realize China's goals on the pitch

English Premier League club West Bromwich Albion will travel to Shanghai this summer - a much easier journey than its previous visit to China, nearly four decades ago.

The 1978 trip took 90 hours, starting from London's Heathrow Airport on a flight that stopped in Rome, Bahrain, Calcutta and Hong Kong before a train ride to Guangzhou and another flight to Beijing.

On May 19, 1978, West Brom blanked China's national team 2-0 in front of 89,400 spectators at Workers' Stadium in the capital - a throng that included the late leader Deng Xiaoping, the "architect" of reform initiatives that helped grow today's China into the world's second largest economy.

 Kicking off a whole new approach

China is planning to invest heavily in school soccer programs nationwide in the coming decades, pumping money into new pitches, training clinics for PE teachers and collaborating with top foreign clubs to harness youth talent. Hao Qunying / For China Daily

Even back then China had a passion for soccer, but only in recent years has there been a palpable revolution in the sport. You could taste it when the Chinese Super League kicked off last weekend at the Jinan Olympic Sports Center, home of the Shandong Luneng club.

China's top clubs are spending vast fortunes on foreign superstars, while Inter Milan, Nice, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Brom have all come under Chinese ownership, while AC Milan is set to join that list.

So why is the country's quest to become a soccer superpower taking so long?

It's a question I posed in 2014 to businessman Stephen Perry, one of Britain's top experts on China and the man who orchestrated West Brom's five-game trip in 1978, making the Baggies the first top club from western Europe to play here.

My question was simple: How can China have both a powerful league and a national team capable of challenging on the world stage?

"Wrong target," Perry said. "The target is to have a major Chinese presence in global soccer with a plan to ensure that is reflected with a significant presence in China."

His response puzzled me. I asked what China should learn from Europe's major leagues.

"Again, wrong logic," he answered.

"Look at the number of Chinese who watch and show an interest in soccer. It is much greater than in Britain and most of Europe put together. But their money and interest goes to existing structures and is not channeled to change."

Almost every top English club boasts that its biggest fanbases are in China, something that makes Chinese fans proud. Perry, though, thought it was one of the reasons the game is sick in China.

So what were his remedies?

Kicking off a whole new approach

"Use the Chinese market and Asian brands to develop global soccer in Asia, and in China," he said.

"China needs to think in terms of much bigger ideas to create the road to being a major soccer force. The long-term aim should be to take the top players to play for the whole season in Asia. Then a global league would develop, with continental competitions.

"When China carried out research into any major industry it developed short, medium and long-term plans. So in soccer do not take short-term steps that will result in short-term results."

Perry's vision moved closer to becoming a reality last April when China's national soccer drive was officially directed toward the target of becoming a top-class soccer nation by 2050.

The 14-page Medium and Long-Term Plan of Chinese Football Development outlines a vision of the sport's progress in the country, and sets up a number of pragmatic measures to attain the goal.

China has become a credible topic in world soccer. Chinese Super League clubs are spending fortunes on superstar players and coaches from Europe and South America.

In the past few months, Carlos Tevez, Oscar and Jackson Martinez have arrived, while Diego Costa is rumored to come in the summer. Luiz Felipe Scolari, Felix Magath, Andre Villas-Boas, Manuel Pellegrini and Fabio Cannavaro, who have all coached at the highest level, are currently in charge of Chinese sides.

After his player Oscar left London for Shanghai SIPG for a fee around $73 million, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte commented: "The Chinese market is a danger for all of us. Not only for Chelsea, but all the teams in the world."

The next step for China is to become a global force on the pitch and one day lift the World Cup trophy.

Back in 2014, Perry suggested China had wasted 40 years trying to develop homegrown soccer, but that it was the only major country that could rise as a powerful soccer force because it has been successful in almost every other sector during the same period.

"China can do it because the country is capable of thinking strategically and researching and planning a set of policies that recognize world power, and how to enter and change it," said Perry.

"If it is embraced at the highest level, China will transform the world of soccer."

In the second decade of the 21st century, this transformation is already underway.

Wang Zijiang is a sports writer for Xinhua News Agency in London

(China Daily 03/08/2017 page23)

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