Chinese Football Association (CFA)

‘We can help make Xi Jinping’s dream come true’ – could this tool unlock China’s World Cup ambitions?

  • Belgian innovation ‘SenseBall’ is used by European youth academies and stars including Dries Mertens and Axel Witsel
  • Its pioneer stresses need to understand Chinese parents and coaching ahead of market entry
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 8:01am

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream of seeing his country qualifying for, hosting and winning the World Cup in the not-too-distant future is an ambitious one, considering the men’s only qualification came in 2002 and they currently sit 75th in the Fifa world rankings.

Nonetheless, the mainland has been drawing up the blueprints for its 1.4 billion population to become an Asian football powerhouse by 2030, and a global one by 2050. The Ministry of Education forecasts more than 30 million regularly practising elementary and middle school students, 12,000 new football academies, and 70,000 new pitches by 2020.

Another Chinese football reform programme strives to include football “on the physical education syllabus in all primary and secondary schools”, with its medium-term plans envisioning an average of one pitch per 10,000 people by 2030, a total of 50 million active Chinese players, and the worldwide recognition of top Chinese clubs.

The push, the numbers, the resources are there – yet the results are not. China continues to trail behind even its Asian counterparts Japan and South Korea, ranked 50th and 53rd respectively.

But what if it could draw advice from the world’s best team? Even better, what if they were already interested in helping?

“There’s something I don’t understand about China. I’ve worked at many clubs around the world, Real Madrid, Barcelona ... the big problem is that a football programme is not copy and paste – you need to understand the social environment first,” said Belgian football coach Michel Bruyninckx, the inventor of SenseBall, an innovative football-training tool ready for launch in the Chinese market.

World number one-ranked Belgium have emerged as a devastating football force, cementing their status with their best-ever finish at the Russia World Cup this summer. Five of its squad members – Axel Witsel, Dries Mertens, Jan Vertongen, Moussa Dembele and Youri Tielemans – have credited some of their success to SenseBall. Some still use it to this day.

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Its components are simple: a ball and handle connected by a piece of string. Users hold it around their midriff and can repeatedly drill their passing and touches as the ball returns like a pendulum. It is mainly targeted for youths – across all levels – for use during warm-ups or light training sessions.

The product officially launched on the day of the 2014 World Cup opening ceremony.

As SenseBall chief executive Olivier Dupont recounted: “It started in Belgium with Anderlecht, then about half of the professional youth teams in Belgium started to use it. When they went to play tournaments abroad, they would warm up with SenseBalls before the game and other team coaches saw and wanted it, so it went from Belgium to Metz in France, to Monaco, to Nantes, to Lille, then to Milan in Italy, and so on.”

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What distinguishes it from being the average back-garden ornament is the online programme that comes with it, which aims to heighten users’ technical and cognitive skills, including two-footedness, foot-eye coordination and – perhaps most vitally in modern football – anticipation.

“People look at it as a toy but this is not correct,” said Bruyninckx, who saw the likes of Mertens and Vincent Kompany pass through his ranks in the celebrated Anderlecht youth system. “The tool is there but the programme is the most important thing. This is not something you’ll learn in a few days, but it optimises speed and development while reducing the number of injuries.

“Today’s football is about anticipation – for many years football was played in a reactive way – and that was the demand to bring Belgian footballers to the top.”

Napoli star Mertens still uses SenseBall “three to four times a week” and was even spotted training with it in Russia.

“I think my first experience with it was when I was 10, maybe even younger,” recalled 31-year-old Mertens, who became Belgium’s top all-time goal-scorer in the Serie A earlier this month. “I was doing one of Michel’s training camps with my friends and we just wanted to play football for fun, but he made you do passing and dribbling drills to music. You start thinking about when to touch the ball – to keep the rhythm – and start to learn in the brain. It sounds stupid but it’s true.

“I’m very thankful for Michel because he let me see soccer in a different way ... the room, the spaces. I’ve won a lot today and he was very important for me.

“To tell you the truth, who am I to say what the best way is [in Asia], but what I can say is that it’s very important to work with the youth. For myself, the development I did when I was playing for Anderlecht ... has made me what I am today.”

As demonstrated by teammate Romelu Lukaku’s quizzical look in the Belgium national team gym video, Mertens acknowledged that the SenseBall is very different from the conventional football and takes time to master.

“I train with it in the club and you see people looking at me like ‘wow, what is this?’ before wanting to try it. At first they were really [bad], but after a while they get to know it. Now we have to think about matches and recovery, but I still use it 10 minutes before training to get to know the ball. It wakes up your muscles.

“A soccer player in training touches the ball about 100 to 200 times, but with this you can touch the ball 1,000 times a day. I would say it’s like golf. When you want to learn how to play you just need to hit, hit, hit. The more touches you get the better,” Mertens said.

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Former Chinese Super League favourite Axel Witsel, now with German Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, would use the tool with his Tianjin Quanjian teammates, including Alexandre Pato and Anthony Modeste.

“I brought one for almost every player,” said the 29-year-old Belgian midfield general, adding that he intends to bring some to the Dortmund training sessions in future. “I’ve been playing professionally for a long time but it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still improve every day.”

Despite leaving China for European football in August, Witsel hopes his Far East influence can spur academies around the continent to follow suit.

“I think the market is not only China, but Asia, too. It can be Japan, Korea, whatever ... SenseBall can help them get better at football, especially in decision-making and technique. If they want to be better in the next years, it starts from the young players and club academies.”

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With Witsel as brand ambassador and a multitude of players and teams on board, Dupont believes a successful product roll-out can guide Xi’s Chinese football utopia into reality.

“The jump to China is a bit more difficult but we have a tool here that can help make President Xi’s dream come true,” Dupont said. “Our tool has been proven to give good results and is affordable and available for everybody to practise, so why not?”

The plan is to move it to Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam.

But some difficulties stem from cultural gaps such as the prioritisation of education over sport. Bruyninckx sees the key to development as balance, however.

“I understand why parents look to their children in that way. The most important thing is good school performances so it’s logical that you want things to develop correctly,” he said.

“It’s important that Chinese parents understand that through moving, you can also influence school. If you involve parents from the first moment and show them that this is what we did in Belgium: if you want to be an intelligent player, you must show it at school.”

Bruyninckx also underlined the need for Chinese coaches – not imported ones – to integrate modern football methodologies into the system.

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“Do not give the impression that you want to master it all – give the Chinese coaches information and make them believe what they are doing. There is no formula that a Belgian or Spanish coach can follow [in China] because if you go to young Chinese players and don’t understand their parents and emotions, it will never work.

“It has to be a Chinese version – you cannot change a society from the outside. If you want role models it has to belong to their society. The only way to do this is to understand Chinese football development, not European,” added Bruyninckx, drawing on his work between French club Metz and their Senegalese academy players acclimatising to the French style of football.

Once China produces a prominent trailblazer in the sport, ideally a Yao Ming-type of the football realm, Bruyninckx is certain they will be a future force.

“People think it will take 10-20 years. I imagine China will be efficient in a few years, and whenever they participate in big tournaments, I assure you people will be talking about them.”