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, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 3:55pm

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 also heads China’s largest football academy.

“Nor have I seen any Cristiano Ronaldos, for that matter.”

Have shock new rules on foreign players burst Chinese football’s transfer bubble?

Xu, whose name is Hui Ka-yan in Cantonese, is investing heavily in a soccer academy and club to help attain President Xi Jinping’s dream of transforming 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.

How China is grabbing the world’s headlines for its ambitious football policy

“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.

Why China’s fears over capital flight and corruption may have dictated new football rules

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, a new Asian record.

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

During Thursday’s press conference on the sidelines of CPPCC in Beijing, the honorary political advisory body 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.

Football’s new stars need to be larger than life as China holds out for heroes

China’s national football team would see a “big leap” in their performance in the coming two years, Xu added, as it had a world-class coach and an advanced training system in place.

Italian Marcello Lippi, who was first invited to China by Xu’s soccer club, was appointed manager of the China national football team in 2016 and is helping China reach the 2018 World Cup finals.