Chinese soccer needs new way of thinking about youth development
Foreign coaches working on the mainland argue youth development is missing piece in puzzle
When Trevor Lamb first arrived in China, he was surprised how many jokes there were about football. And not one of them was complimentary.
"There were literally dozens of jokes about the game," says the American coach. "In fact, there still are. People associate football with poor quality and as a joke."
The most common gag is: "In a country of 1.3 billion people, we can't even find 11 players!"
As with all the best jokes, there is a painful ring of truth about it.
China are 93rd in the latest Fifa world rankings, in the slipstream of countries such as Oman and the Dominican Republic. The team failed to even make it to the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and their nadir arrived in June, when they were beaten 5-1 at home by Thailand - a country ranked 47 places below them by Fifa.
So, joking aside, how can such a powerful nation be quite so bad?
Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who took over Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F in June, says he was struck by how few kids play football on the streets or in parks in China. "If you go past a park in the city, they're not playing football like they are in parks in Manchester or London or wherever," the Swede said. "Football has never been a big, big sport in China and one of the problems is that there is no grass-roots football."
Lamb is well-placed to judge. Having arrived in the country as an aspiring player in 2002, he now heads up the junior coaching programme at Sinobal, a semi-professional team in Hangzhou.
Although he says there clearly is grass-roots football - dozens of youngsters attend the Sinobal sessions each week - there is a different footballing culture to that in his homeland or Europe.
"A lot of the spaces people live in are exactly that, spaces to live in," he says. "People don't participate in community activities, which is what a local club thrives on. The culture of Sunday league and dads volunteering, or the US with soccer moms, just does not exist here."
Dutch film-maker David Lingerak is working on a documentary about football in China and its title - 11 out of 1.3 billion - is based on that popular joke.
Lingerak has discovered that China's one-child policy has encouraged an individualism often allowing little room for football.
"When children are six, most parents don't want them fooling around with a football," he says. "If you shine at an individual sport like ping pong, then it's all down to you. There is a chance you could become really good and even win a gold medal at the Olympics. But if you play football, you're one of 11, which makes it much less secure as a future."
Lingerak's film follows the progress of Yangkun, or Kevin, a six-year-old attending a specialist "soccer school" in Shanghai. He participates in football coaching once his academic lessons have finished each day.
Lingerak says this is only one of two such schools in Shanghai and that's not many in a city of 24 million.
In fact, most schools in the city allow little room for anything other than academic learning and preparing for tests.
"Education is this huge monster in China and is really demanding on the kids," says Lamb. "Kids of 10 years old are doing three or four hours of homework a night. It's incredibly competitive and there's not much room for any sport, let alone football."
Because not only might football interfere with study, it's also a sport whose image has been tarnished by corruption.
The Chinese Super League has been dogged by match-fixing scandals ever since its inception in 2003, and this has seeped into the public consciousness.
After major match-fixing was uncovered in 2010, dramas were broadcast about the affair and sports channel CCTV5 stopped showing football for a time.
Many decided this was not a sport that they, or their children, should be involved with.
Those involved with the Chinese Super League might insist those dark days are over - for example, Eriksson says, "I haven't seen anything of it so I hope it doesn't exist any more" - but doubts persist among the public at large.
However, things could be about to change thanks to Tom Byer's China Schools Football programme and professional clubs starting to get behind the grass-roots game.
When the first professional league was set up in 1993, there was a general feeling the clubs would take care of developing the next generation of talent, but this never happened.
Instead, owners looked for immediate success and money was lavished on big-name foreign players, such as Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba.
Eriksson says there is now a much bigger focus on the grassroots. "The clubs are putting a lot of money into football schools," he insists. "We have 3,000 boys in the academy at my club and have joined up with Chelsea.
"The best club in the country, Guangzhou Evergrande, have 20,000 young boys playing football. They have help from Real Madrid so success will come."
The achievements of Marcello Lippi's Evergrande, the first Chinese side to win the Asian Champions League, has also proven that Chinese sides can be successful.
The second leg of the final against FC Seoul was the most-watched sporting event of the year on Chinese television, with an audience of some 30 million.
Even the usually sanguine Lippi was taken aback by the level of interest. "There was a huge sense of expectation and excitement," the Italian says. "And not only from the fans of Guangzhou - right across the country."
The side was composed mainly of top Chinese players, such as defender Sun Xiang and Zheng Zhi, bolstered by a few top foreign players, including Argentine Dario Conca and Brazilian strikers Muriqui and Elkeson. Conca returned last month to Brazilian club Fluminense.
Evergrande's success will surely help to improve the game's profile but Eriksson believes the biggest catalyst for change would be the emergence of a true superstar.
"China needs a big name in football, who will be a big star internationally," he argues. "That would help football in this country very, very much.
"Someone who could play for Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. Unfortunately, we don't have one at this time."
Change might be on its way, but it's going to take time. It will take a generation to really turn around football," says Lamb.
And when that happens, it will benefit not just the national team but society as a whole, he says. "The education system is in dire need of an alternative," Lamb says. "Education is not just about helping people take tests. It's also about preparing kids for life.
"A lot of life is about teamwork and problem solving. And that's where football comes in."