Class of ’92 say Chinese clubs must nurture grassroots talent like Manchester United did with them
Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, and Nicky Butt discuss how they think China can become a football powerhouse on visit to Hong Kong
They are perhaps the most famous example in footballing history of academy prospects being nurtured together to reach the very top of the game.
Now, Manchester United’s famous ‘Class of 92’ – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, and Nicky Butt – are urging the wealthy clubs of the Chinese Super League to follow their example.
In Hong Kong as part of a whistle-stop tour around Asia to promote the new “Ballr” interactive football app, and local broadcaster Now TV’s football coverage for next season, the legendary United quintet had their brains picked at a famous Central members club as part of a discussion panel titled “Building Winning Teams”.
“In any successful team, you can go and buy the Zlatan Ibrahimovics and the Paul Pogbas of the world but you still need to have young players coming through the ranks, who have a feeling for the club, who have a heart for the club, and who want to do well for the club,” said Butt.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has cottoned on to this notion, and are making attempts to crack down on the influx of big-money foreign signings stemming the development of homegrown players.
At the beginning of the season, the CFA reduced the number of foreign players allowed in an outfield 11 of each Chinese Super League team from four to three.
A new tax rule has now been imposed for the transfer window, where Chinese clubs making a loss each year will have to pay the same amount of money they spend on a foreign signing to the Chinese Football Development Fund.
Butt, who made 270 appearances for United between 1992 and 2004, knows all about the importance of developing young talent, having been appointed as head of coaching at the United youth academy.
“Football is a business and you’ve got to attract big, big players, but now you’ve got the new tax rule it’s going to be a lot more difficult to attract them,” said the 42-year-old, who spent six months at Hong Kong side South China in the 2010-2011 season.
“But it may be a good thing, in terms of grassroots football here. Sometimes, you get too many foreign players going over just for the money.
“For me, recruitment is massive in academy football, in any kind of football. If you get recruitment right, you’ll get the fruition in time. But you have to be patient.”
Gary Neville won 17 major trophies at United including eight Premier League titles and the Champions League, and has become an authoritative voice in the game through his role as a commentator and analyst for Sky Sports in England.
He believes foreign signings still have a part to play in China’s football development, but thinks there is an even more important factor to improving the grassroots’ game.
“The reason they’re bringing players over is to create a competitive market, so you can see the standard you need to get to, to play at the highest level,” said Neville.
“But you also have to improve the quality of coaches. If the coaches are good, children will be coached well. Kids and young people will always respond to good coaching and good teaching.
“Drive the standard of coaches, and also make sure the players can play in the most competitive environment.”
Neville said that there would be no quick fix for China and that visible success would only come through time and investment.
“They have to maintain it over a long period of time. We’ve seen it over the last 25 or 30 years, with Asian countries such as Japan – or you could even point to European countries like Norway or Turkey. They have had huge development in football, African countries as well.
“We’ve seen the persistence, but it has to come from the grassroots upwards.”
China seems to have time on its side – President Xi Jinping, a football enthusiast, wants to see China become a football superpower and win the World Cup by 2050.
Speculation has also grown that China will bid to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cup, with Xi reportedly telling Fifa boss Gianni Infantino as much during a meeting in Beijing in May.
“It is the global game,” said Giggs, who holds the record at United for competitive appearances with 672. “When another league is competing with the Premier League and La Liga – America are trying to do it too – it can only be a positive.
“When you see the pure volume of people in China, and the push the president wants to give football, not only at the high end but also at grassroots where he’s encouraging health and exercise, it can only be a good thing.
“Whether it will go on to be like the Premier League or La Liga, we’ll have to wait and see, because those leagues have got history.
“You’ve seen the calibre of players that are going over, but ultimately China will have to produce their own players for it to be sustainable.”