How China hopes soccer academies and boardroom deals can help it land the World Cup

Led by president Xi Jinping, an avid fan, China has made it a goal to become a soccer superpower

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 3:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 1:26pm

Wang Shijie, 11, is a rising star among the nearly 3,000 students at Guangzhou Evergrande’s huge soccer academy in south China. He wants to join the national team and help achieve President Xi Jinping’s dream of winning the World Cup.

In schools like this around the country, China is training an army of young players it hopes will help the nation shake off its lowly place in the world’s football ladder: 84th out of 209 countries.

“When I join the national team, I will do my best to help China become World Cup champions,” said Wang during a break in training at the school that has 50 full-size pitches and coaches flown in from European giants Real Madrid.

Led by Xi, an avid fan, China has made it a goal to become a soccer superpower. A consortium led by state-backed China Media Capital took a US$400 million stake last week in the owner of English Premier League giants Manchester City – Beijing’s biggest investment in the sport overseas.

The tie-up will help Abu Dhabi-owned City tap the fast-growing sports and entertainment market in the world’s most populous nation, and at the same time give China international soccer knowhow, on the field and off.

“The Chinese government wanted to make a statement,” said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which brokers deals between Chinese investors and European teams.

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Jarvis said he was currently working on six deals with Chinese firms looking to buy into clubs in Europe – including in England, Germany and Spain – and that there would be even bigger Chinese investment in 2016, usually with a China-based soccer school or training base thrown in.

“Pretty much every football club which has some type of deal with the Chinese will have an academy. It’s very much Xi’s long-term dream of World Cup glory, and building the infrastructure on the ground is exactly what they want.”

The only time China qualified for the finals of the World Cup was in 2002 and hopes of qualifying for the 2018 finals are almost over after a goalless draw with Hong Kong last month.

There is no evidence that investing in football clubs overseas has contributed to any Asian soccer team’s prowess. Businessmen from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India and China all have stakes in European clubs.

But if the investments help improve China’s soccer infrastructure, it could lead the way to a successful bid to host the World Cup finals, sports executives say.

For the clubs, China is a huge, still untapped market. The country aims to grow its sports market to 5 trillion yuan by 2025 and football will play a big part.

“The willingness to pay for sports isn’t limited to watching them; membership at sports clubs is up, as is the amount people are willing to spend on sporting equipment,” said Liu Yue, a former national football player and now a commentator.However, corruption and player quality remain serious hurdles in Chinese football. A crackdown to clean up the game has seen at least nine officials, four judges, 13 footballers or coaches and 17 club workers jailed or punished since 2009.

“A short-term goal for China is to gain a leading role in Asia,” said Fernando Sanchez Cipitria, technical director at the Evergrande academy who came through the youth team ranks at Real Madrid.

“For China to win the World Cup it could be a long journey.”