When it comes to youth football, sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence. For Chinese football fans, it’s certain when they cast their eyes over to Japan and South Korea. The regional rivals are in a better position than China when it comes to young players and it goes beyond the chances of their respective under-23 teams in the Tokyo Olympics next summer. This week, Japanese youth international Hiroki Abe left J.League side Kashima Antlers to join Spanish champions Barcelona. The 20-year-old will not be the only young Samurai Blue star on show in Spain. The boys are off to El Clasico pic.twitter.com/PkWuU5cqoC — AFC (@theafcdotcom) July 14, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> Takefusa Kubo was a youth player at Barcelona before being forced to return to Japan because the Camp Nou club broke recruitment rules. Instead of returning to Barcelona from FC Tokyo the 18-year-old has instead signed for Real Madrid, meaning there is a Japanese player at the two biggest clubs in the world. Kubo: "I watched your videos before my matches." Hazard: "Well done." pic.twitter.com/iR2tfgWtKd — Goal (@goal) July 15, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> Kubo has impressed on Real’s tour training sessions and could be in line for minutes in their preseason games. He is even rumoured to be in the first team photo, which is different from China’s Lin Liangming, the 22-year-old who spent last season on loan from Real Madrid Castilla to Almeria B. The Japanese pair spent the summer with the national team at the Copa America, rather than with the under-22 team that finished runners up to Brazil at the Toulon tournament. Look at how impressed the senior players are with Kubo. He's killing it in every session. Can't believe we signed him for free without breaking a sweat. https://t.co/zEVZvEJlMN — A. (@KaizerT8) July 14, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> They might not even be the most talented young East Asians in La Liga . South Korea’s Kangin Lee was handed his Valencia debut in January, becoming the second youngest player to play in the Spanish top flight last season. Lee has since turned 18. He lit up the under-20 World Cup and is expected to do the same with the Spanish side this season. He got the golden ball award in Poland, named the player of the tournament in Poland as he guided his team to the final despite being the youngest player on the South Korea squad. The South Korean was spotted by Valencia scouts as a six-year old on a South Korean reality show and he appears the real deal. OFFICIAL: Barcelona have reached an agreement to sign Kashima Antlers and Japan star Hiroki Abe ️ That last finish reminds us of a certain Lionel Messi pic.twitter.com/bOcJbii1CB — Goal (@goal) July 12, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> Sadly, the reality for Chinese youngsters in Europe is very different. Many young Chinese players are moved overseas, but often to smaller clubs in lower divisions. These clubs often have murky relations with mainland money. The truth is players are signed and often quickly moved on to build their profile and value when selling them back to Chinese clubs. Chinese youth football is renowned for its murkiness with tales of kickbacks to coaches to play rife. Lee Kangin takes home the adidas Golden Ball at the #U20WC ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/7Ph5HN6A5z — FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) 15 June 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> Those who play the game get to play and those who don’t find their careers curtailed, with many giving up. Those that do stay in football struggle for game time. The recent under-23 rule changes in the Chinese Super League are an attempt to amend that, but it is notable that 23 is considered young in China, while Kubo, Abe and Lee have moved much younger. Wu Lei, who impressed at Espanyol in La Liga last season , is the only Chinese player in the top five European leagues. Thank you my friend Wu Lei ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/pqXWfVRe3s — Oscar (@oscar8) July 3, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> South Korea have eight – led by Tottenham’s Son Heung-min who moved to Germany as a teenager – while Japan have 12. Both have plenty more players in the leagues below and elsewhere overseas. Instead, the future of Chinese football right now is in adding to the talent pool by naturalising foreigners to play for the national team . Perhaps Elkeson can score the goals to get China to the 2022 Fifa World Cup , but it is not a long-term strategy. Elkeson started in his 1st game after his return to Evergrande and doubled the lead against Tianjin Teda. Imagine if it is him to partner with Wu Lei in the national team in the World Cup qualifying set to kick-off in September (disregard if his naturalization is justified). pic.twitter.com/0Fy4Ep5oqL — Titan Sports Plus (@titan_plus) July 11, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> He scored on his return to Guangzhou Evergrande over the weekend and he could yet fire them to a third AFC Champions League , but this approach is short-termism. Even with the recruiting of younger Chinese players this winter, these players have had an average age of 23 and are a long way behind the development seen in Japan and South Korea. Zhang Yuning scored three goals and set up three more for league leaders Beijing Guoan this year. But the 22-year-old has spent the last four years in Europe before returning to the CSL. No golaço do Beijing Guoan você escolhe o que foi mais bonito: A) A jogada individual de Zhang Yuning B) A caneta e a finalização de Jonathan Viera pic.twitter.com/fazkeE3J5P — Leonardo Hartung (@HartungLeo) July 8, 2019 <!--//--><![CDATA[// ><!--\n\n\n//--><!]]> It’s tough for young players to get game time in China. Shanghai Shenhua’s new manager Choi Kang-hee opted to put in 37-year-old goalkeeper Li Shuai instead of 22-year-old Chen Zhao in his first game in charge. Shenhua still lost. There has been plenty of investment in the youth set-ups of Chinese clubs and grass-roots football in general, but we are yet to see the rewards, even from the impressive academy that Guangzhou Evergrande launched in 2012. There is no guarantee we ever will. While their regional rivals are going against the best the world has to offer at the age group levels, China is nowhere near. The sins of the full national team could be forgiven if there was hope in the youth levels. But hope, like talented young players getting a chance in the CSL every weekend, is thin on the ground.