CBBC’s Tom Simpson looks at the future opportunities for British companies in China’s growing football sector
Football’s grassroots development in China received a jolt in the arm from the vocal and widely publicised support of Xi Jinping back in 2014. There is, however, still a very long way to go before China can come close to achieving its stated goal of winning the World Cup. There is no quick fix and an overhaul of the existing system will be required before any significant progress can materialise.
China’s national men’s team has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 2002 (the only time China did make it through to the finals) and there are few signs to suggest this is going to change soon. The problems go back a long way, but the 1990s are significant as this was when the leagues were professionalised and the ownership of teams and, crucially, the local elite academies passed from the State over to private enterprise. Subsequently, the academy system went through nearly a decade of neglect. Without state funding, the academies were regarded as a burden for the clubs who, at the time, were not motivated by the combination of money and the national cause in the same way as they are today.
Investment is beginning to be made in the right places though. Clubs are placing importance on and investing funds in nurturing China’s next generation of footballing talent, although the numbers required to produce a substantial talent pool will require efforts beyond just the clubs. In 2014, responsibility for developing grassroots football in China transferred from the Sports Bureau to the Ministry of Education (MOE) who unveiled a plan to establish a network of 20,000 ‘schools with football specialisation’ around the country. The MOE’s aim is to get as many young people playing football as possible.
Building the talent and physical infrastructure required to turn around China’s footballing fortunes will take significant amounts of time and money as well as know-how from overseas. This has not gone unnoticed, meaning that many overseas clubs and companies have developed relationships and projects in China that include the delivery of both short and long-term coaching programmes, the seeking out of commercial partners and sponsors, and the building up of local fan bases.