Football on the Orient Express

I am now in my third year of visiting China working in schools, soccer camps, coach mentoring and professional football clubs. So what have I learnt and what is the future for football in China?

Well we are all now aware of the Chinese Super League and the amount of money being invested in these clubs. Teams like Shanghai, Evergrande and Guangzhou are becoming household names and known throughout the world. Top names in the game are being lured over to play for big sums of money and its not longer just the older players on their way down to pick up their pension money.

Being involved with newly formed Chinese 4th tier club Shantou Lions brings exciting times to the players, coaching staff and the city with a population of just over 5 million people. Watching them play and train you begin to realize that the football culture and history is a million miles away of what one is used to in the English game. Football in schools, clubs and throughout the communities has been regenerated to help improve the standards of ability of the up and coming footballers. Player and coach development has been introduced to cultivate a footballing strategy to improve the players technical, physical, psychological and social ability. It will be interesting to follow the course of what has been created over the years to see how it develops and hopefully blossoms.

With a population of around 1.4 billion, the chances of China being a dominant footballing nation should be high if the infrastructure is implemented correctly. I often get asked the question of whether or not China will ever win the World Cup. Some experts in the game predict they will win it within the next 6 to 10 years! Whether or not there will be a correlation between the successful Chinese Super League and that of the Chinese national team I wait with great anticipation.  I think I would not be alone in saying that the success of the English Premier League has not resulted  in having a successful national team. Although the Chinese F.A. ruling of only allowing to field 3 overseas players in the team to allow local players to develop is a great idea for players to develop alongside top players. This learning experience and giving players opportunities  to play at the highest level can only be for the good of Chinese football and who knows this experience may result in them winning the world cup!

It has been reported that China wants to be a world football superpower by 2050 and aims to win the World Cup with the national team. President Xi Jinping, a football enthusiast, wants the country to have at least 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. In order for there not to be a boom then bust syndrome, sustainability must be in place for the longevity of the games development that is currently ruled by a Communist party that allows a capitalist economy. Whether or not political interference will change the shape in how this growing footballing nation will develop remains to be seen. At the moment it is actively encouraging the sport and for sustainability is encouraging football in schools and for clubs to develop their youth system. I have seen many basketball courts and concrete playgrounds being replaced with football goal posts and artificial football pitches during my time in China.

From my own experience in China I am seeing young children improve their football skills and technically will soon be as good as what I witness on a regular basis back in the UK. I think though the improvement of the team game will take much longer to materialize. China is learning a great deal from the outside world about the game and football teams and coaches have been enthusiastic in helping the football revolution in China. In a country though where individual sports are dominant, it will take a generation to learn how team sports operate. The most popular sports of table tennis (ping pong), badminton, martial arts, diving, fencing and other Olympic individual sports far outweighs the emerging western teams games of football, basketball and volleyball. In football terms learning how to play as a team, communicate, team tactics, movement off the ball for each other and other team game skills are still lacking and will take longer for coaches to see an improvement than the individual technical skills.

Cultural differences will play a part in how China develops compared to other footballing nations and to see a third world country flourish in football would be great for the country and world sport. Although in modern day definitions I use the term third world loosely as economically one would argue this. The social hierarchical structure is more rigid in China than western countries and informal coaching methods will take time to understand. The way cultures see confrontation and conflict; honour and reputation;  the role of self and morals; celebrating success; respect and punctuality differs enormously. Therefore coaching methods and strategies require modifying to allow for this but at the same time lay down the DNA blueprint in how successful teams operate. It is hard to coach in a way that is the opposite to the way that you have been socialized in your country and its long historical culture. Therefore foreign western coaches in China may flourish as they have been brought up in a society with those footballing philosophies.

As I witnessed at the Soccerex Conference in China recently, football really is a global football business and the eagerness for success is massive. I just hope the desire for instant gratification does not put off the enthusiastic crowds that have started to emerge and the love of the beautiful game does not dwindle and patience is given to all those that are involved in putting down football foundations in China. Only time will tell.

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