Chinese football enters a new era

Chinese football enters a new era

One of Asian football’s leading journalists, Scott McIntyre, recently visited China and provided this Guest Column exclusively to Asian Football Feast. Scott works for SBS/The World Game in Australia and has travelled extensively across Asia reporting on the local Football scene. You can read more of Scott’s work here.

Dario Conca is unveiled as a Guangzhou player

The commotion amongst the massed ranks of journalists was almost as furious as that of the club’s famed supporters during the recently completed match – Dario Conca had emerged in the bowels of the Tianhe Stadium and everyone was keen to say hello.

A club little known outside of China had, the week I arrived in the country, created huge attention worldwide with the signing of Conca – an Argentine midfielder voted as the best player in Brazil for the past two seasons.

Not so much for who he is – a fine player granted but one not yet deemed good enough to be handed a cap for the Albiceleste at senior level – but for how much he’s earning.

While the $10 million transfer fee from Fluminense is mind-boggling in its own right, a reportedly salary of almost $9 million per year puts the 28 year old in elite company; in fact it makes him the third-highest paid player in the world, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

All this not at a Real Madrid, a Milan or a Chelsea but in China and at a club that until this season had been playing in the second division.

This is part of a remarkable story playing out in the Middle Kingdom.

On the one hand there is almost universal agreement that Chinese football at national level is at its lowest point in decades – possibly ever – yet on the other hand the domestic game is by most measures enjoying one of its most successful seasons in years.

Crowds across the league are flourishing with Guangzhou averaging almost 45,000 supporters, Beijing in the mid 30,000s and Shaanxi not far off the same mark.

Clubs are now able to attract high-profile players and coaches and in a landmark agreement during the same few weeks I was in China recently Wang Jianlin, chairman of real estate conglomerate Dalian Wanda, handed 500 million RMB (almost 75 million dollars) to the CFA to promote a range of footballing initiatives but most importantly to help fix some of the ills afflicting football at both the grassroots and national levels.

And at those levels there is plenty of concern.

I met with a range of prominent figures within Chinese football during my time in the country including youth coaches at Super League clubs, former and current Chinese internationals as well as senior members of the CFA and a range of journalists and all were in agreeance that radical change must come from the grassroots.

China was bundled out of Olympic Qualifying by Oman

Recent results at all levels, but especially amongst the youth sides, make for some hard reading - no Chinese men’s youth team has qualified for a FIFA tournament since 2005, the Olympic side recently lost in the first stage of qualification for London 2012 to Oman and the national team was dumped out of the Asian Cup in the group stage.

What’s becoming increasingly clear is that the country is struggling to produce footballers of genuine class and what was once a flood of Chinese plying their trade at the top level in Europe has now become a trickle – more worryingly though is the lack of children playing the sport nationwide despite the obviously large population base.

Without wanting to delve too deeply into social politics it’s clear that several government decisions have heavily impacted football – notably those around population control.

The country’s one-child policy is a generation old and its impact on football is now being seen - and the picture is not good.

As the rapid pace of development in the country’s mega-cities eats up space for football to be played ‘spontaneously’ and parents place a greater emphasis on academic success rather than that of a sporting nature the country finds itself at a crossroads.

The money from Wanda – who have taken on signage rights at grounds across the country – and the influence of the new senior leaders at the CFA are hence key in undertaking a ‘revolution at the grassroots’ of local football.

The CFA is currently in the middle of a huge re-development of their training systems for youth coaching and have been studying similar models in Europe, South America, Japan, Korea and Australia as they seek to overhaul the way the sport is organised at youth level.

A major, nation-wide program will be implemented in schools from next year with the aims of adequately training youth coaches, of ensuring that all schools have spaces to play the game and, most importantly, to encourage children to see the benefits of football and the pathways that exist to make a career from the sport.

This in tandem with structural changes at a higher level that has seen the implementation of a reserve league for the first time this season are to be commended as steps in the right direction – but there is still a long way to go.

For a game that has been blighted in recent years by a spate of match fixing scandals this introspection is vital although there is recognition that the fruits of this new approach may be a decade or more away.

But back to the situation in club land where the picture is decidedly brighter – if not perhaps artificially so.

Tianjin qualified for the Round of 16 in the ACL

Tianjin Teda qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League (only the third Chinese club to do so over the past five seasons) and with the CFA taking extreme steps (including a ban on players using mobile phones on matchdays and an early-season requirement for teams only to be told who’s actually playing hours before kickoff) to remedy the corruption issues there’s a sense that at least supporters are witnessing genuine contests.

Perhaps not so though in terms of economic clout – a recent ownership change at Chengdu has seen the club put through a virtual firesale that the coaching staff have had no control over while poor old Shenzhen have been forced to live like recluses – changing base hotels every few weeks and not even having access to their stadium which has been quarantined for use in the upcoming Universiade – a similar situation to that at Hangzhou where the club must travel two hours out of town for each of its ‘home’ fixtures due to a stadium upgrade.

At the other end of the spectrum though are the big boys.

This includes those with ‘prestige’ such as Beijing – the pride of the capital but reviled elsewhere in the country; clubs such as Henan and Shandong who can spend money to bring players such as Marcos Flores or Fabiano to cities where they may not otherwise visit and those with the support such as Shaanxi – an outfit where former Adelaide midfielder Jonas Salley is virtually a living municipal treasure despite having only spent two seasons there.

Then there is the club to top them all – free spending, widely supported Guangzhou.

Areas such as Lianiong may argue but many put the case that it is in the south of the country where Chinese football has its natural home.

A region so fiercely proud of its ‘difference’ that supporters bring banners to the stadium bearing the slogan of the ‘Canton Supporters Association.”

Historically Guangdong has been a stronghold of Chinese football and is the birthplace of many of the country’s most famous footballing sons, including Peng Weiguo, Wu Qunli, Mai Chao (currently a youth coach at the club), Su Yongshun and Hu Zhijun.

After the humiliation of enforced relegation two seasons ago following the match-fixing scandal the club bounced straight back to the top flight by winning the second division where they lost only one match all season.

Guangzhou has undergone a big transformation

That was the same year that the Evergrande property group assumed outright control of the club and backed by their not inconsiderable wealth the side has undergone a massive transformation.

Former Beijing coach Lee Jang-soo arrived at the beginning of last season and soon after came a series of record signings – diminutive Brazilian playmaker Muriqui arrived in June last year for $3 million, then naturalized Serbian striker Cleo arrived for almost $5 million at the start of this season and now the bank-breaking deal for Conca makes you wonder just who will be the target for next season.

But it’s not just the overseas stars that the club has targeted - Chinese internationals Zheng Zhi, Zhang Linpeng, Jiang Ning, Feng Xiaoting, Yang Hao and Yang Jun also arrived over the past two seasons and the result has been the astonishing rise of a club now known as the ‘Chelsea of the East.’

As significant as the money is though, it’s only part of the story – the rest being the fanatical support the side enjoys at home.

Earlier this month I travelled with the Chengdu Blades side as they arrived to play Guangzhou at home and after a slow ride through the city’s peak hour traffic we arrived at the Tianhe an hour and a half before kickoff expecting perhaps a spattering of fans to be making their way into the stadium.

So, it was with much surprise that we headed through the tunnel and onto the field for a warmup to be greeted by what would have been 15,000-20,000 supporters all dressed in red, jumping up and down and signing like their lives depended upon it – this more than an hour out from kickoff.

Guangzhou's fans are some of the most passionate in Asia

It’s well known that Asian football supporters are amongst the most fanatical on the planet – those at the Calcutta derby or the Azadi for Team Melli matches or the likes of Urawa’s red brigade in Saitama have huge reputations – but I was shocked by how close the fans in the south of China are to those more fabled groups.

This is a footballing city with a genuine passion for the game – red may be the national colour but it’s also the dominant theme in the city, the wonderful stadium draped in shadows from the surrounding skyscrapers is sold out for virtually every home match and the club enjoys massive media support – as witnessed in the bowels of the Tianhe when Conca appeared and, to a person, the assembled reporters clamoured for photos and autographs.

With the huge financial clout results have flowed – Guangzhou currently sit nine points clear at the head of the standings and even with 14 matches remaining already appear champions in waiting.

And with second-placed Guangdong currently impressing in League One it appears likely that Guangzhou will become the only city to have more than one club in the top flight next year.

The story then becomes one of what GE can achieve in the ACL next season and as their coach told me later that evening, the aims are clear – conquer China this year and Asia the next.

In the midst of arguably the worst ever decline of Chinese football, the strange sensation is dawning that China may just be about to introduce Guangzhou as Asia’s latest superclub.

It’s a strange old country.

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