The kids are all right: focus shifts as China looks to enhance youth development to improve standards
Chinese Super League clubs threw money at expensive foreign imports to raise the league’s profile, but long-term strategies will mature to cultivate better youngsters
Can anyone stop Guangzhou Evergrande? The five-time reigning champions came away from a visit to Liaoning Whowin with a 3-0 victory this weekend to end round 10 with their ninth win in a row. The latest triumph puts them six points clear at the top of the Chinese Super League table ahead of the chasing pair of Jiangsu Suning and Shanghai SIPG.
The Nanjing side’s unbeaten league campaign came to an end at Tianjin Teda, while Shanghai SIPG, who ran Evergrande so close for the title last season, beat Hangzhou Greentown to remain seven points off the pace.
Rather than their title rivals, though, it might be an English Premier League club that derails Evergrande’s bid to retain the title. The South China side’s star full back, Zhang Linpeng, has been linked with a move to English champions Leicester City after being touted as a potential Chelsea signing last summer.
Evergrande have no reason to sell, from a financial perspective at least while the cap on overseas players means China international Zhang is a vital part of the team. They do, however, have a recent history of being magnanimous in the market.
In the last close season they sold Elkeson to Shanghai SIPG for reasons of “supporting Chinese teams to compete in the AFC Champions League and for the national glory”, according to an official statement.
WATCH: Highlights from Guangzhou Evergrande’s 3-0 win over Liaoning Whowin
Zhang’s move to England would certainly fall under the notion of national glory were an established Chinese international to become a fixture in a Premier League side, even more so if it was the reigning champions.
For his part, Zhang has said he would be open to a move to the King Power Stadium.
WATCH: Leicester City target Zhang Linpeng scores a long-distance screamer
If he does make the move, Zhang will not be the only Chinese footballer to call Leicester home, that’s if recent statements from vice chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha are to be believed.
There are plans already in place to bring over 15 Chinese teenagers for a two-and-a-half-year stint in the club’s academy, where they will receive football training and English lessons.
It’s not just Leicester that are expressing an interest in Chinese youth.
At Atletico Madrid, who became the first European club to be part-owned by a Chinese company when Wang Jianin’s Wanda Group bought a 20 per cent stake last year, part of the investment was to ensure the club will host players from Wanda’s China Future Star Programme.
The initial plan, which is already under way, was for 180 Chinese youth footballers to be educated in Spain by next year.
Elsewhere, Xia Jiantong has declared that the biggest objective of his pending takeover of Aston Villa – who will become the first overseas team to be wholly owned by Chinese investors – is improving Chinese soccer.
That’s exactly what president Xi Jinping has called for with his plan to get the national team on the road to winning the World Cup and the first step in doing so at Villa is to bring high school age footballers over to Birmingham as soon as this summer.
It’s not all one-way traffic. Leicester City have said that long term they hope to open an academy in China but they will be late to the party.
Brazilian Ronaldo is putting his name to 30 soccer schools in the country and his former teammate Luis Figo has a couple already, while their old club Real Madrid were involved in the creation of the HK$1.44 billion Evergrande Football School, the world’s largest football academy, where 20-odd coaches from the Spanish side lead the curriculum.
Many other European clubs run soccer schools or partner with local academies, Manchester United, Liverpool, Celtic and Chelsea included.
Meanwhile, Manchester City, who received investment from China Media Capital earlier this year, have partnered with SoccerWorld China.
The deal will see Chinese coaches receive intensive training from City coaches and the best players in their training programs will be sent to the City Football Academy in Manchester.
Even more interesting is a recent report from ESPN that the City Football Group, which owns the Etihad side as well as both New York City and Melbourne City, will next create a team in the Chinese Super League.
That would be the boldest signal yet that Chinese football is on the map and for reasons more than big money overseas signings.