China must help home-grown stars enter international leagues to make a mark on world soccer stage
Winning teams are built around individual talent, which can be developed when players are recruited by top club teams
Guangzhou Evergrande’s second AFC Champions League title in three years is a balm to the mainland’s sporting pride after the national soccer side – representing a country of more than 1.3 billion people – were twice held to a draw by Hong Kong in World Cup qualifying rounds. With due respect for Hong Kong’s feat, Chinese fans understandably found the result underwhelming. It raises the question of what it will take for China to climb the world soccer ladder. Driven by a dream of China hosting and winning the World Cup, President Xi Jinping , a keen soccer fan, has spearheaded a clean-up of corruption in the game and a campaign for its widespread adoption that would make it a national sport. The seemingly inexplicable shortcomings of the national side make even qualifying for the World Cup tournament seem far off.
It is hard to tell what Guangzhou Evergrande are doing right that the national team are not, apart from a private owner running the club as a business and buying a handful of foreign players, who cannot be selected for the national team. On the other hand, national team players should be motivated by a sense of patriotic honour and prestige as well as money. The Chinese Football Association engages a foreign coach and need not be outspent, but remains under huge pressure to produce better results.
It is true that a parallel may be drawn with the success in Europe of the top English clubs - also bolstered with foreign stars - compared with the unremarkable international results of the English national side. In the long term, the best chance China has of reaching the top flight rests with Beijing’s new approach to development of the game, centred on making it a mass sport by encouraging children to take it up in schools. In the short term, the authorities should also encourage recruitment of promising Chinese players by overseas clubs, so that their potential is fast-tracked in a more competitive environment. They would still be available for international duty and, after all, winning teams are built around individual stars.