Belgium has 11 million inhabitants and is currently ranked 3rd in the world in football, whereas in comparison, China has 1.4 billion people and their national team is ranked 73rd. The Belgian national team has stars playing all over the world in top international competitions, while the Chinese national team has no players playing in any top competitions. So how is it possible that a small country such as Belgium can be so much better at football than China?
First of all, we need to understand the difference between quantity and quality. The quantity in China is higher; their population is far greater. However, Belgium has invested in quality. After Euro 2000 they invested and reformed the Belgian youth set up. The quality of the youth set up improved, and now 18 years later, Belgium is proudly among football’s biggest and most successful nations.
President Xi Jinping at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland.
Since President Xi became president, the hype around football started to grow in China. As President Xi values football and is a big football fan, he set some goals for the Chinese football scene. The goals - China needs to have 70,000 football fields by 2020 across the country and by 2025 there needs to be 50,000 football schools. Next to this, they also added football to the curriculum of every school in China. The goal is to have 50 million people playing football. In 2030 or 2034 they even want to host the world cup, and by 2050, China needs to win it. Are any of these goals impossible? No, China has a lot of potential. There are enough investors within football to make this possible, and a lot of potential players.
Increasing the level at the top
On July 1 2016, Hulk signed an enormous deal with Shanghai SIPG. Before Hulk other great names like Drogba and Anelka played in China. But the move of the Brazilian superstar to China was a tipping point. In the following 2 years, many high profiled players joined Chinese teams. With Witsel, Carrasco and Masika, there are also 3 Belgian players active in China. Not only star players came to China, but there are also a lot of foreign coaches. Swedish top manager Sven-Goran Eriksson managed R&F, SIPG and Shenzhen FC. Other big names on this list are Villas-Boas, Lippi, Seedorf, Pellegrini and Cannavaro. The input of star players and coaches made sure that the level of the Chinese football improved rapidly. However, the Chinese FA didn’t want to come into a situation where the league would be existing mainly of foreigners. Furthermore, they also wanted to protect the young players and make sure that they get fair chances. To permit this, they only allowed foreigners in the Chinese Super League (top tier) and in the Chinese League 1 (second tier). In the Chinese Super League, there is a restriction of 4 foreign players. In the Chinese League 1 it is 3 foreign players. The Chinese FA also installed the U23 rule. This rule states that for every foreigner on the field there has to be a Chinese player younger than 23 playing too. Finally, they increased the tax on big transfers for foreigners. When the transfer fee exceeds 6 million Euro, there is a 100% tax on the transfer fee. The 100% tax goes back to a fund that invests in youth football in China. The combination of the transfers of star players and the regulations makes sure that the level increases at the top, while still protecting the Chinese players.
School or football? Or both?
Belgium could be used as a good example to China because of the structure of their football pathway. Belgium has a very clear pathway from regional level, to provincial, to national and to elite level in their youth set up. Due to this, all players are able to play football at a level that fits and suits their needs. This pathway can be related to a pyramid. It’s wide at the bottom, which is the regional level. It gets smaller over provincial and national football. And at the top, there is elite football.
In China however, there are three levels. There is grassroots football, school football and professional football. The grassroots level is for all players and all abilities. The main aim is to make sure that as many players as possible participate and play football. This and the school football adds together to increase the quantity, as more people are participating in football. The school football can be divided into two parts. The first one is focused on participation. This includes football during PE lessons or after school football classes. The second one is focused on competition. The schools are competitive to win the school tournaments, and they take this extremely seriously. Some schools take it as seriously as professional football. The school football tournaments are organised by the Bureau of Education which is a part of the government. Matches in these tournaments get live streamed or even broadcasted on a wider level. Schools who can progress a long way during these tournaments can earn money, and see the reputation of their school increase. The professional football teams are part of the Chinese Football Association (CFA). These two systems are existing next to each other and because of this, it is possible to sometimes find better players in school football than in professional teams. Either the participants prefer to play football and go to school, or the school wouldn’t allow them to leave for the professional team. This is because if their star player leaves, they weaken their own team and have less chance of winning the tournament. The lack of a good pathway in China between the different levels can result in talented players playing at the wrong level and not reaching their potential.
Within the professional academy football, the main threat is the distances between the teams. The older age groups have a real competition format, which means they play in a league with the best professional teams across China. The travelling distance for an away game can be more than 2000km, and because of these huge distances and long travelling times, a lot of training time gets lost. At this moment, there are not enough professional teams to create more local leagues and maintain the quality in the league. Although, this could be an option for the future. With the younger teams (younger than 16 years old), there is a different format used. They have several cups or mini competitions during the season. They will train for a couple of weeks at their base and then all the professional clubs will meet at a venue to play two weeks of mini competition. They play many matches during this period. After the mini competition, they will go back to their base and they then can start preparing for the next mini competition. The positive in this method is that the travelling time is reduced, however, multiple weeks pass without a competitive match.
It is evident that the quality of young players is increasing. The football within the league and mini competitions has a more European style, and clubs like to take European teams as an example. For this reason, they invite on regular basis top European and South American teams to compete in youth tournaments in China.
While a few years ago the gap between European and Chinese youth teams was massive, the gap is decreasing. This, therefore, shows that the quality of the Chinese youth players is improving.
Shengle FC playing a match against Palmeiras
Exploiting the potential
But there is still a lot of potential in youth football. Clubs are gaining more, and younger, youth teams. This will result in better football education and more match time from a younger age. Furthermore, most kids are living at the club and the club organises their school. This way they can optimise the training and school time without affecting the kids spare time. Twelve year olds training 7 times per week is not rare in China. The quantity, both of amount of players and amount of training time, will never be the limiting factor in China. The biggest improvement can be made in coach education. Due to the lack of football history and people playing football in the past, China has hired many foreign coaches on all levels. This works short term because the level of training increases. However, in the long term to keep this level, it is very important for the Chinese coaches to take over this leading role. The main struggle now is that some Chinese coaches are repeating the same as methods from 20 years ago. 20 years ago they failed, but today they do the same but expect a different result.
It must be said there are also very good Chinese coaches but allowing the closed minded coaches to become more open minded is definitely an important case. A short term fix is to attract foreign coaches with knowledge. At the moment, there are many coaches involved in teams from the grassroots level to professional level. For example, Belgium currently has 9 coaches in China and these coaches are active in all layers of football. In the Belgium philosophy, it’s important to understand that every level is equally important but the job description of the coach is different. You can compare it with a salesman in cars and a salesman in real estate. Both are salesmen, but they need to adapt to their product and to their customers. Every coach should be an expert at their level.
In the long term, it is necessary to educate the local coaches. The better the level of the coaches, the better they can deliver training. The better training the players get, the more they will improve. The Chinese Football Association is organising more coaching courses and clinics. Next to this, there are also some private organisations who are getting foreign football experts to deliver clinics. When the education of coaches increases, the quality increases.
A foreign football expert delivering a coach education session
Chinese football is like a very raw diamond. They’ve already done a lot and it has been polished a bit. However, it is still raw. There is no doubt that the diamond definitely will shine brightly one day. The national team will start to play a more prominent role in international football when the current youngsters reach the national team. Steadily and step by step, they will be more succesful in Asian tournaments, and over time even participate in a world cup, reaching their goals. In the last few years, the quantity has already increased as more and more people have started playing football. Now the main focus is to keep increasing the quality by coach education and even to create a better football pathway. The new generation is waiting. Watch out world, China is coming.