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Global prominence the goal for Chinese soccer

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

Updated: 2016-03-14 07:24:48


Recent developments

In March last year, inspired by President Xi Jinping's expressed desire to see China qualify for, host and eventually win the FIFA World Cup, the pinnacle of the professional game, the central government issued a blueprint to boost the game's development through youth promotion and reform of the professional leagues.

The number of schools with mandatory soccer courses is targeted to reach 50,000 by 2025, from more than 8,000 at present, and 50,000 school soccer teachers will be trained in the next five years.

According to the Ministry of Education, 146 government-funded youth coaches from overseas have already worked across the country with students and teachers, and a further 120 more will be invited this year.

Pei Encai, a former coach of the Chinese women's national team, who now runs a youth training camp with Ray Sports, a company based in Beijing, said the game needs to attract more young people.

"The only way to build a solid grassroots foundation for the game is to do it on campus. We will only be able to build professional competence when enough kids are playing soccer in schools," Pei said.

Professional zeal

Compared with the patient approach adopted by promoters of youth soccer, lavish investment in the game at the elite level has rocked the soccer world as Chinese teams rush to raise the game's profile by hiring big-name foreign players.

During the latest winter transfer window, clubs in the CSL, China's top-flight competition, spent a staggering 334 million euros ($374 million), the highest of any league in the world according to the German sports website Transfermarkt. The cash on offer has lured a veritable foreign legion to play in the CSL's 2016 season, which kicked off on March 4.

Attacking Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira, who cost his new side Jiangsu Suning a CSL record 50 million euros when he transferred from Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, is just one of the top players to have left the game's major stage to play in China. Other new arrivals include Brazilian midfielder Ramires, who was acquired from the English Premier League club Chelsea, and Argentinian striker Ezequiel Lavezzi, who arrived from the French league giant Paris Saint-Germain.

The league's spending spree could have been even bigger: England captain Wayne Rooney recently revealed to British media that he had turned down "an astronomical offer" to join CSL stalwart Shanghai SIPG.

According to experts, the buying frenzy has highlighted investors' determination to clean up the game's image, which was tarnished by corruption scandals in the late 2000s, while promoting their own businesses on an ideal marketing platform.

Research conducted by Vning Media Brand Consulting Agency showed that the average attendance for each match at CSL games rose to 22,000 last year, the sixth-highest in the world, while the total audience for televised games was about 400 million.

Adam Zhang, founder of the Key-Solution Sports Consultancy, said the national strategy to grow the sports industry amid downward economic pressure has motivated non-sports companies, such as Suning, the country's leading electronics retailer, and China's biggest e-commerce company Alibaba, to come onside.

Last year, Suning bought the CSL side Jiangsu from Sainty Corp for a reported 500 million yuan ($77 million). The move came after the e-commerce giant Alibaba, founded by Jack Ma, purchased a 50 percent stake in five-time CSL champion Guangzhou Evergrande in 2014 for 1.2 billion yuan.

Mark Dreyer, who runs the website China Sports Insider, sees the foreign influx as a positive factor, but remains cautious about substantial long-term progress. "The new-found interest from fans around the world is certainly putting Chinese football on the global map. If-and it's a big 'if'-the growth of the domestic league, combined with grassroots development, can really translate into the long-term improvement of Chinese players then China could become a force in world football 20 years from now," the British national said.