Former China soccer captain Hao Haidong was one of millions of children who were encouraged to play the sport by their families. As a child he could never have imagined that one day the game, that brought him fame and glory, would become a taboo subject in his homeland.
Youngsters get into the kicking part of the game during a youth soccer promotion at Beijing Workers Stadium in 2009. The General Administration of Sport and the Ministry of Education have encouraged development of the sport in primary and middle schools across the country. [Provided to China Daily]
Born in 1970, Hao showed talent at primary school in Qingdao and was selected for the Bayi teenagers, a team affiliated to the People's Liberation Army, in 1980. He progressed to the seniors just six years later and was transferred to Dalian Wanda in 1996, where he led the team to five league championships from 1997 to 2002.
"Qingdao was dubbed a soccer city when I was a child," Hao told China Daily.
"There were a lot of parents who expected their children to change their lives through sport, and every school was promoting soccer."
Hao was China's first-choice striker and earned the label of "Asia's No 1 scorer" when he was terrifying defenders in his prime.
But now the 41-year-old general manager of second division club Tianjin Songjiang has to face a disappointing reality: fewer parents are inclined to encourage their children to play soccer and even schools have stopped subsidizing teams.
According to the Chinese Football Association (CFA), China had more than 650,000 players under the age of 18 registered in the early 1990s. That number plummeted to 7,000 at the end of last year. In comparison, Japan has 500,000.
"Nowadays, I think there are at most 10 out of a thousand schools in China that support students to play soccer," Hao said.
So when he heard Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group and his former boss when he played for Wanda, signed an agreement with the CFA on Sunday and decided to pour in 500 million yuan ($77.3 million) over three years to boost soccer in China, he could not hide his excitement.
"The springtime for China's soccer will come," Hao wrote on his micro blog.
Hao is probably the best witness of Chinese soccer's roller-coaster ride over the past decade. He enjoyed the heydays of the late 1990s when his Wanda team dominated the national top-tier league, the undisputed most popular competition in China at that time.
Then he witnessed his former boss, Wang, quit the game in 2000 after bribery and match-fixing scandals rocked the league.
According to the new contract, Wanda will sponsor the Chinese Super League (CSL) - to be called the Dalian Wanda Plaza CSL - from the 15th round of this season to 2013, with a total sponsorship of 65 million yuan each season. That also includes referee training.
Wang also intends to lure a world-class foreign coach to join the national team with a three-year contract worth about 40 million yuan.
More important for the game's future, the new partnership has agreed to place a priority on the development of youth soccer and immediately launched a program called Future Stars, which each year will provide 100 talented players aged between 15 and 17 with opportunities to play overseas for two to three years at international powerhouses such as Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy and France.
Hao knows only a strong youth program can save China's soccer from an even greater malaise.
"Everybody knows children need a good atmosphere and environment to discover their talents in music and painting. In fact, it is the same in soccer," he said. "There's no need for us to argue which soccer style we should learn as our neighbor, Japan, is the best teacher for us. We have no time and the CFA must do it right away and step by step."
Former national team coach Gao Fengwen, who guided the Chinese men's side to its first Olympics in Seoul in 1998, echoed Hao's thoughts.
"The youth are the future of Chinese soccer. We must make a solid foundation for the youth from the beginning in terms of training, management and culture education. Otherwise it will still be hard for us to make progress," Gao said.
Gao is struggling to run a soccer academy in Shenyang, Liaoning province and he said Wanda's return would provide a great boost to the sport.
"The involvement of Wanda is very inspiring, and I hope more soccer schools will benefit from its cooperation and walk out of these difficult times," he said.
While the Chinese soccer team struggles on the international stage, its Asian counterparts Japan and South Korea continue to enhance their reputations.
At the current Under-17 World Cup, Japan swept New Zealand 6-0 in the round of 16, and narrowly lost to soccer powerhouse Brazil, 3-2 in the quarterfinals.
The success of China's neighbors comes down to consistent development at the youth level, according to Shenzhen's French coach, Philippe Troussier, who spent a rewarding spell in Japan from 1998 to 2002.
"Chinese soccer is very late (in its development). If we judge Chinese soccer with that of Japan, maybe there is a 20-year difference," he said.
Under the guidance of the Frenchman, the Blue Samurai claimed the 2000 Asian Cup championship and made the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup. Troussier also led the Japanese Olympic team to a fifth-place finish at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
"The Chinese have good skills, I think no different (from the Japanese players), but they are weak strategically," said the 56-year-old. "For that you have to teach the players from the beginning. You need strong youth development through schools and clubs. This is the next big project the CFA must think of for the next 20 years."
Dutchman Arie Haan, who was in charge of the Chinese national team from 2002 to 2004, agrees with Troussier, and believes Wanda's sponsorship provides a great opportunity to boost the sport.
"I think they have a big chance (to change Chinese soccer), because for this you need money to change something and they have a good idea," said the 62-year-old, who led China to the Asian Cup final on home soil in 2004, where it lost to Japan 3-1.
"You have to start with the youth, and to learn from the countries which are doing the same thing," he said. "A lot of countries have very good youth programs, so you have to look at how they organize, how they do and you need the right people for it, and I think after a few years you will get results, but it takes a lot of time."
Wanda's investment in the youth program could also revive parents' interest and produce some promising stars.
If the relationship is successful, more companies and schools could join the fold.
A similar effort benefited the sport in 1993 when the CFA sent a youth team to Brazil and that five-year training plan helped nurture several players such as Li Tie, who played for Everton, Li Jinyu, a domestic league top scorer; and Li Weifeng, a former national team captain.
However, the CFA soon abandoned the plan.
New CFA chief Wei admitted his organization is now paying for its long-term ignorance.
"The training system of Chinese teenage soccer has slipped into a state of paralysis over the past few years, and we are beginning to pay for the mistakes now," Wei said. "The popularization of soccer should start with children and the progress of Chinese soccer depends on the emergence of high-level young players."
Wei's determination is expected to change the CFA's result-oriented policy.
The CFA's top officials regularly set their sights on the results of the national teams. The CFA employed six coaches for the Chinese men's national team from 2000 to 2009, and the women's side has had eight coaches in eight years.
But no person was found to turn around the squads' fortunes .
"I am not a savior. I am just an entrepreneur who still has passion for soccer and hope to do something for the game here during its hardest time," said Wang.