Does China have 7,000 potential Lionel Messis? Soccer academy boss admits he’s yet to see one

But Xu Jiayin is confident that China can produce home-grown football superstars without paying a fortune for overseas talent

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 11:04pm

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Are there 7,000 soccer players in China as talented as Argentine star Lionel Messi? This question was posed to the boss of China’s largest football school at a press conference on the sidelines of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) meetings in Beijing.

“So far I haven’t seen a new Messi,” said Chinese property tycoon Xu Jiayin, chairman of Evergrande Group who heads China’s largest football academy. “Nor have I seen a Cristiano Ronaldo.

Xu is investing heavily in a soccer academy and club to help attain President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) dream of turning China into a soccer superpower. Xi is an avid football fan and the central government has even devised a state plan to improve soccer performance all the way to 2050.

Xu, chairman of China’s biggest property developer by sales, has set up the world’s largest soccer school with about 2,800 pupils aged from seven to 16 training under coaches invited from Spanish club Real Madrid to help China become a “first-class soccer country” by 2050.

While China is the world’s most populous country with a growing economy, the country’s national men’s soccer team has witnessed its FIFA ranking fall from 37th in 1998 to 86th this year.

“While we haven’t found a potential Messi at our school, China has more than 1 billion people, so there’s still plenty of hope here,” Xu said.

Xu’s club, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club, plays in the Chinese Super League and was one of the most aggressive in luring star players to China with hefty packages over the last two years. In 2014, Alibaba Group paid 1.2 billion yuan (US$174 million) for a 50 per cent stake in the club. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

The club attracted attention in early 2015 by signing a four-year contract with Ricardo Goulart for a transfer fee of 15 million (US$15.8 million) and fellow Brazilian Alan Carvalho in a four-year contract for a transfer fee of €11.1 million. In February 2016, Evergrande signed Colombian player Jackson Martinez for a fee of €42 million, which at the time was a record for an Asian team.

Ramires, the former Chelsea star, and fellow Brazilian Alex Teixeira both signed for Jiangsu Suning in 2016. And this year, Shanghai SIPG signed another Brazilian star from Chelsea, Oscar, for 60 million.

Such bids from Chinese football clubs have raised concerns not just about local players being pushed into the shadows but as a potential route for capital flight.

At Thursday’s press conference on the sidelines of CPPCC in Beijing, of which Xu is a member, the Chinese tycoon said Chinese clubs must stop their expensive bids for overseas footballers.

“Attracting foreign footballers needs to be in line with the overall football development of the country. Our focus should be on cultivating the future generation of footballers in China,” Xu said.