The World Cup has caused a bit of a furor in China, in oh-so-many ways. Woman have complained their boyfriends haven’t been giving them due attention. Some folks have even committed suicide due to racking up outlandish gambling debts. But occasionally, just occasionally, it’s the football that comes first. And the state of Chinese football has left many a Chinese national, well, a bit upset. As a recent Quartz report put it: “China’s soccer industry is indeed perplexing. Chinese soccer has long been rife with corruption and has distinguished itself as a showcase for teams that range from mediocre to downright embarrassing.”
The endemic corruption in Chinese football has been reported at length, and it is often seen as one of the reasons the nation has struggled internationally. Nevertheless, people don’t want to let that spoil a good tournament, but when the World Cup kicked-off in Brazil, when what now seems like years ago, there was, sadly, no place for a Chinese national team side that is currently ranked 103rd in the FIFA World Rankings, below the likes of Equatorial Guinea, Cuba, the Congo, Botswana, Palestine, Qatar, and even footballing minnows England. But what will concern Chinese football fans even more, is the fact that they have only ever qualified once for the tournament–in South Korea and Japan, 12 long years ago, in 2002
However, China’s disappointing footballing struggles may be about to change thanks to a colossal football academy known as the Evergrande International Football School in Guangdong Province in southern China. It is the biggest anywhere on the planet. And, according to an excellent and wide-ranging report in the Telegraph, the main purpose of the state of the art facility is to build youngsters to become footballing megastars and in turn drive China not only to World Cup qualification but towards World Cup triumph.
Fernando Sanchez Cipitria, a former Real Madrid youth graduate and Spain international is now the technical director of the academy and he strongly believes in the Chinese vision, telling the Telegraph: “This is our dream. This is what we are working towards.”
The youth academy opened in 2012 and is a significant part of China’s plans to turn the nation into a footballing powerhouse. The academy is named after Guangzhou Evergrande, the Chinese football club attached to the project, which became first Chinese team to win the AFC Champions League title in 23 years in 2013–the first Chinese football club to win the continental title in its current format.
President Xi Jinping, who will be in attendance for the World Cup final at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium on July 13, is often portrayed as a huge football-fan by the Chinese media and has vocalized his ambitions that China could host and even win a World Cup in the not too distant future.
Those ambitions now rest on the shoulders of the Chinese youths of today. In order to make these children realize their full potential and nurture them into Chinese Messis and Peles, and Cruyfs, a squad of Spanish coaches has been relocated to the academy due to a partnership with Real Madrid.
Retired Spanish striker Sergio Sestelo, 35 was one of those coaches and he is very optimistic about the future of Chinese football: “I don’t know if China can become world champions but that is what we are aiming for. There are lots of football players because this is such a big country and our job is to track down talent wherever it is and work with it so that one day China can become number two in the world,” said Sestelo.
The school is the creation of Xu Jiayin, the owner of Guangzhou Evergrande who reportedly has a personal fortune of at least 48 billion RMB. According to the Financial Times the property tycoon, splashed around £115 million on the academy’s university building.
With the construction of a giant 15ft replica of the World Cup placed at the academy entrance and statues of Pele and Bobby Moore there is more than enough for the children to take inspiration from and realize China’s dreams, as well as their own. During the later hours of the day, the academy’s fluorescent blue lights and can be seen a long way away from the school.
This colossal academy presents the pinnacle of Chinese football with a total of 50 football pitches and 30 more being built, according to the Financial Times.
“If you had to walk around all the facilities you would do your knees in. It is spectacular and they built it all in just 10 months. It is crazy. In Europe it would take five or six years to build something like this,” Cipitra told the Telegraph.
These bold plans have been eased by a further major investment from internet billionaire Jack Ma, reports Quartz. Ma is said to have brought a 50 percent stake in Guangzhou Evergrande. Interestingly Ma is not necessarily a fan of the game as he told Chinese reporters: “My lack of understanding for football is the very reason why I have to get in touch with it. Football is something that represents happiness. It is happiness that has deceived me.”
There is no doubt that China has plenty of football fans – Manchester United claims that 108 million followers are based in China alone, and according to FIFA, China has just over 700,000 registered players, about two-thirds that of the Netherlands, a country with 16 million people. But now, the real work has begun, and a Chinese football evolution may just be lurking on the horizon.
Images courtesy of Weibo, Flickr, and www.evergrande.com.