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Has the legacy of China's one-child policy destroyed Xi Jinping's World Cup dream?

"He shui," Ibon Labaien reminds his charges, in broken Mandarin, every few minutes.

"They need to drink water constantly in this heat or risk passing out," explains the 28-year-old Basque, one of 22 Spanish coaches that Real Madrid " Europe's top football club " has chosen for an ambitious venture with property developer Evergrande Group. Labaien works alongside one of the academy's 116 Chinese coaches, and communicates through an interpreter.

Ibon Labaien instructs students at the Evergrande Football School. Picture: Zigor Aldama

"The infrastructure [in Qingyuan] is amazing " compar­able to that of Spain's [La Liga] clubs," says Labaien.

"We have around 2,500 kids aged between eight and 17 years old," explains public relations executive Lee Lingzhi. "Tuition costs 50,000 yuan a year but the most promising players are hired for the elite squads and receive a full scholarship."

Some of the Evergrande Football School's 48 pitches. Picture: Zigor Aldama

"The best will be polished in Madrid for three years after they turn 14," says Lee. The first generation involved in this exchange will return to China next year. "And, in the future, they will have a chance to play for the Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao club, the best in China."

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Evergrande won seven Chinese Super League titles in a row between 2011 and 2017 (although they stand in fifth place out of 16 clubs in the current season), and have lifted four Super Cups " including this year's " and the Asian Champion's League trophy twice (2013 and 2015). Even so, according to both foreign and local coaches at the football school, Guangzhou Evergrande would not fare well in any of the major European leagues.

Guangzhou Evergrande players celebrate their win in the AFC Champions League football final against the UAE's Al Ahli in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in 2015. Picture: AFP

Jose Antonio Camacho saw things differently when he landed in China in 2011, to take charge of the national team. "The country is now a sports powerhouse at the top of the Olympic Games medal tally," the former Spanish national team coach told the press. "I don't see any reason why we won't be able to find 22 good football players among 1.3 billion people."

Jose Antonio Camacho. Picture: Xinhua

China has qualified for the World Cup only once " in 2002, when the tournament was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, and "Team Dragon" failed to score a single goal " and it comes as no surprise that the country will not be playing in Russia this month. Despite having tens of millions of fans to cheer them on, China are repeatedly humiliated on the football pitch.

But the government has a plan.

President Xi Jinping, with his wife, Peng Liyuan, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel greet players before an under-12s football match between Germany and China in Berlin, Germany, on July 5, 2017. Picture: EPA

"The development and revitalisation of football will improve the physical condition of the Chinese people, enrich cultural life, promote the spirit of patriotism and collectivism, cultivate sports culture and develop the sports industry," the programme envisages. "Football will be included on the physical education syllabus in all primary and secondary schools, and the proportion of hours will be increased." Schools have also been instructed to "strengthen the basis of football talent and improve the overall quality of students."

An Evergrande student practises his ball skills. Picture: Zigor Aldama

The midterm goal is to achieve "a significant increase in youth football" and to make the Super League and the men's national team "the best in Asia".

The long-term goal goes way further: to turn Chinese football "into a sport that is universally participated in by the masses", to launch "an active bid to host the men's World Cup" and to "significantly increase the international competitive­ness of the men's national team to reach the highest ranks globally".

"Kids in Europe, America and Africa start to play with a ball as soon as they can walk," he says. "Then, they challenge friends wherever they can and have plenty of clubs to join and train with. There are also many competitions to take part in. That is a huge advantage over China, where there are almost no football fields and just a few dozen teams."

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Players train at the Evergrande Football School. Picture: Zigor Aldama

Infrastructure can be built easily enough but instilling a creative mentality is much harder to achieve.

"Physical education here is akin to the military," says Labaien. "In Europe, we play multiple sports; in China, they do exercise collectively. The absence of freedom makes kids very disciplined but they lack passion, creativity and boldness. They are afraid of making decisions and shy to speak their minds."

Labaien points to his training sessions as an example. The 11- and 12-year-olds he coaches remain silent most of the time. They pay attention to the strategies he explains with diagrams on a board but have trouble adapting them on the pitch.

"If you don't tell them exactly what to do, they are hope­less," says the Spaniard. "And they seldom talk to each other on the field, so coordinating passes and strategies during a match becomes almost impossible."

Lunchtime in the Evergrande Football School canteen. Picture: Zigor Aldama

"Chinese scouts tend to choose the kids for their physical strength," Ferreras explains. "But often that is just due to early physical development, an advantage lost with time. I look for co-ordination, technique and mischief, because these are Chinese youngsters' major shortcomings."

Evergrande students take a post-lunch nap. Picture: Zigor Aldama

Those he likes the look of undergo a week of trials before they are admitted on a full scholarship. It is a great opportu­nity for the children, because education at the Evergrande school is top quality, but Ferreras' job is no walk in the park.

"Even with 10-year-olds, I find that federation managers in China [those overseeing the leagues or cup competitions the youngsters are competing in] try to pocket money [from Evergrande] for a transfer," he says. "Maybe corruption in the top leagues has been rooted out, but it's still pervasive at the bottom of the system."

Guanxi (personal relationships) plays a big part in the sport, and Ferreras has said he has had to reassess children who have been referred to him by an influential figure. "Fortunately, we are never forced to choose someone we don't believe in," he promises.

Ferreras also refuses to hand out hongbao " red envelopes containing money " to facilitate the admission of a child to the Evergrande school, but sometimes challenges come from unexpected sources. "China has learned that football can be huge business, and even some parents ask for up to 10,000 yuan to let their child come with us." Other times money is offered rather than requested, in the hope that a boy will be admitted into the elite teams, the scout says.

Once the best players are in training, other obstacles arise.

"I was very surprised when I saw that players here didn't celebrate goals," says Merino. "They turn around and keep playing as if nothing happened. We had to force them to embrace each other after a victory. But they feel awkward and it doesn't come naturally."

He believes the reason for this lies in the one-child policy, and, Lasa adds, "They are taught and pressed hard to be the best by family and teachers, but not to cooperate and to care for others. This may work well in individual sports, in which China excels thanks to its athletes' capacity for sacrifice, but not in football or any other team sport.

"If we lose 20 to one, they don't care as long as they scored their team's goal."

Manu Merino (left) reacts with students at the Evergrande Football School. Picture: Zigor Aldama

One of the Chinese coaches has a son whose age is still counted in months rather than years. "He is already playing with a ball," says Lasa. "That's the difference China needs to see. Maybe he will be a good player. If you have millions like him, you'll be a superpower in any sport. But I'm not sure that will happen, because parents in China value other things over playing games."

But Jose Ignacio Artieda sees a reason for hope. He trains 12- and 13-year-olds at the Evergrande academy, those who may leave for further training in Spain if they excel. "We have already won some international tournaments, proving that heavy investment bears results. But it will take some time before China can fully develop its potential."

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White also doubts China will become a footballing super­power by 2050. "China needs to see the benefits of youth coaching and then those players get into first teams in China, but, more importantly, around the world. Then they need to win things at club level. All of this needs to happen before China will get anywhere near winning a World Cup."

Hosting the competition would help enormously. "It happened with the Beijing Olympics and individual sports," says Artieda.

"The most important thing for the country is to be patient and to keep investing in infrastructure and human capital," adds Merino. "It's good to have 50 football fields in a school, but results will come when 50 fields are built across every city and province."

Coaches (from left) Labaien, Jose Ignacio Artieda and Mikel Lasa with students at the Evergrande Football School. Picture: Zigor Aldama

"Women in Asia are more competitive and less arrogant. Plus, they work harder," says one of Evergrande's Chinese coaches, Li Wei. Four of the world's 20 best women's teams are East Asian (North Korea leads the pack, at No 10) but you need to scroll down to 60th position in the men's rankings to find Japan, the best performing team from the region.

It is quite a feat the Chinese women have achieved given that most schools and clubs cater to males only. Even the Evergrande academy takes only 100 girls at a time.

"The country would do well to focus more of its attention on the women's side, where there are a growing number of success stories that will fuel the continued rise of the sport," writes Renberg-Fawcett, in her China Policy Institute article.

Veronica Boquete is among the few professional foreign players employed by one of the eight clubs contesting the Chinese Women's Super League. Having played in seven countries and for some of the world's best clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, the Spaniard decided to wear the colours of Beijing BG Phoenix this season.

Veronica Boquete plays in the Spanish team against Italy at a Fifa Women's World Cup Canada 2015 qualifying match. Picture: Alamy

But the attacking midfielder warns that the success of the Chinese women is at risk. "[China] is falling in the rankings because other countries, especially in Europe and America, are paying more attention to women's leagues and are catching up fast. China was a powerhouse more because of the weakness of its rivals than for its own strength."

White sees things much the same way. "The women's game is not as competitive at the very top so the sport was prioritised as one that China could excel at," he says. "The men's game is only now of interest because orders have come from the very top that China must succeed."

Boquete and her team's Swedish coach face many of the same difficulties the men from Real Madrid are trying to surmount in Qingyuan. "Victories will still take time, but I feel we play better and there is a growing understanding of the game among my teammates," says the player. "Still, many are afraid of making decisions, they don't dare to take the initiative, and sometimes I face behaviour I would only expect to see among little girls."

A three-time Champion's League finalist, Boquete believes China's ambitious plans to take football to every school in the country will eventually bear fruit and offer professional opportunities for players such as herself " even though teams are limited to including only two foreigners per match " as well as coaches like those working for Evergrande. "Chinese football needs foreign talent to develop and grow," she says.

Brazilian forward Debora Oliveira (centre) is blocked by Chinese defender Liu Shanshan (left) and midfielder Li Ying during the Algarve Cup football match between Brazil and China at the Estadio Municipal in Albufeira in 2015. Picture: AFP

A more proactive strategy was chosen by Shandong Luneng Taishan " a pioneer when it comes to football academies; its school was founded in 1999 and claims to have so far produced 149 players who have played nationally for China at various levels. In 2014, its owners bought Desportivo Brasil, based in the city of Porto Feliz. The school now uses the lower-league Brazilian club as a proving ground for its most promising footballers.

In 2017, Shandong Luneng reached an agreement to send under-18 players to Spanish Second Division B club Jumilla for training. Not surprisingly, that club is also Chinese owned.

A Chinese player from Shandong Luneng carries balls after a training session in Porto Feliz, Brazil. Picture: AFP

China has imposed strict restrictions on the employment of foreign players " which have brought down spending on transfers from more than US$500 million in 2017 to a little over US$50 million this year, according to German-based football website Transfermarkt.com " and White sees the logic. "Hiring foreign expertise has been a tactic used in other industries to drag up the level before replacing with local hires," he says. "The same model can work for football but, arguably, the game will struggle from the absence of a grass-roots pyramid. Without that there is no progression for young Chinese coaches and players, in the way that Germany has used so successfully."

Management at the Evergrande Football School is fully aware of the need for an improvement in coaching as well as player standards. "On Wednesdays, we don't train the kids, we train the [local] coaches," says Labaien. "But we find that many are not really passionate. They come from the Faculty of Sports and have easy and well-paid jobs."

One of the local coaches, who prefers not to be named, agrees with Labaien. "I wish to train the future players of China's national team," he says. "That would be a big source of pride for me. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues don't share this enthusiasm and believe Chinese are doomed to fail at football " because we make progress, but other countries do also."

A training session at the Taihu International School, in Zhen Ze, Jiangsu province. Picture: Zigor Aldama

"Kids are getting fatter and more selfish," says Kuo. "The abuse of technology and the materialistic values of society today threaten to create a generation of physically unfit " and therefore sickness-prone " children who care only about themselves. We use football in our summer camp to strengthen teamwork and improve kids' physical condition.

"They may never be professional footballers, but I believe the sport can make them better people. And what higher aspiration can we as teachers, or China as a country, have?"

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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