Tag Archives: football

China Kicks Schools Football Up A Notch

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

ONE AREA IN which China is not an emerging power but wishes it was, is football. As our man among the muddied oafs has noted before, China quietly harbours ambitions of staging a FIFA World Cup.

However, for now, the national team, still recovering from the corruption and match-fixing scandals that beset the professional game in the not so distant past, does not match up to that expectation. Despite its unexpected success in reaching the quarter-finals of the recent Asian Championships, it currently still ranks joint 83rd in the FIFA World rankings (though the women’s national team ranks 16th).

President Xi Jinxing is a fan of the sport, which China claims to have invented (see picture above). Xi also understands the statements about national soft power that sporting success can make. So there is a state plan.

The State Council has issued a 50-point development plan. One of the central points is to switch responsibility for developing the sport to the China Football Association from the General Administration of Sport. That may restore some of the authority the association lost after the corruption scandals.

Another is to boost the game in schools. One immediate impact of this is the creation of a school football leading group. It comprises the education ministry and five other government departments, including the National Development and Reform Commission, which suggests it will have some clout.

The education ministry says it is increasing the number of primary and secondary schools designated as football academies to 20,000 by 2017 from 5,000 now. This will mean they get new facilities including pitches, which across China have been swallowed up for property development in recent years. Thirty counties will trial promoting the development of young players and raising the popularity of the game among schoolchildren.

Last November, education minister Yuan Guiren said that football would become a compulsory part of physical education classes in all schools and that 6,000 school coaches would be trained this year. Seven volumes of instructional text books are in preparation, according to the People’s Daily. The goal is for there to be 50,000 schools specialising in football by 2025. In 2016, football will become an option in the national university entrance examinations in an attempt to overcome parental reluctance to let their children swap studying time for chasing a ball around a pitch.

With Qatar cementing its hold on the 2022 World Cup, the next likely opportunity for China to host the tournament for the first time is 2034. Would China have a team suitably good enough by then? Never discount the power of Party discipline, but as the U.S. has shown, two decades is the bare minimum for raising a generation of footballers good enough to compete with the world’s best.

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Jack Ma Takes A Shot At Football Club Ownership

Since time immemorial professional football clubs have been the playthings of successful businessmen. Alibaba’s Jack Ma, by taking a 50% take in Guangdong Evergrande for 1.2 billion yuan ($192 million), is following an ancient tradition.

Why is he doing it? He has shown no interest in the game previously.

There may be money to be made. Talk is of an eventual public flotation of the club, though in Europe listed football companies have not proved particularly successful for investors. Many have reverted to closely held ownership.

It may be that there is a branding play for Alibaba as it spreads its wings beyond e-commerce, Ma has couched his investment in the football club in terms of buying entertainment content. He would not be the first billionaire to see football as such. Rupert Murdoch was a pioneer in that regard. Evergrande’s success on the field since real estate tycoon Xu Jiayin  bought the club in 2010, makes it preeminent among China’s teams, a prerequisite for building a merchandising and media brand.

Alibaba has been on a spending spree ahead of its planned blockbuster listing in the U.S., splashing out some $6 billion on acquisitions to broaden its portfolio of businesses. Most have been Internet companies, but it is starting to make inroads into media and entertainment. Sport, though much changed by television, has not been significantly disrupted by technology. At least not yet. And it is not costing Ma much in the global scheme of things to try.

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The Rise And Fall Of Alain Perrin

CHINA’S NATIONAL FOOTBALL team squeaked into next year’s Asian Cup finals this week by the narrowest of margins. It was a sobering welcome for new coach Alain Perrin (above), appointed by the China Football Association late last month after a lengthy search for a successor to Jose Antonio Camacho. The former Real Madrid manager was ousted last June in the face of the team’s continuing dismal performance.

Perrin is little known outside of football circles in his native France. He won cups and a league titles there but his greatest reputation is as a stop gap. None of his eleven appointments — he most recently managed Qatar’s Olympic team — have lasted longer than eight months.

That may have been the strongest selling point of his resume. Our man among the muddied oafs says that the CFA wants to appoint to the job Marcello Lippi, the Italian who manages Guangzhou Evergrande. Lippi coached Italy in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which it won. Last November his Guangzhou Evergrande won the AFC Champions League – the first time that a club from China had lifted the trophy.

Lippi’s contract with the club is up at the end of this year. This Bystander is not surprised to read that Perrin’s payoff will be slight if he is dismissed, nothing like the 51.5 million yuan ($8.4 million) Camacho and his coaching staff reportedly walked away with once they were shown the door.

China lies 88th in FIFA’s global country rankings and barely scrapes into Asia’s top 10. Lippi would have a huge challenge ahead of him in getting the national team to qualify in 2018 for what would be only its second World Cup finals. The country’s football is only slowly overcoming the corruption, bribery and match-fixing scandals that plagued it in years not too recently past.

Lippi may have some technological assistance not available to his predecessors. China is putting some of its best researchers to work on video analysis of the national team’s games. Teams (of academics) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Natural Science Foundation, Xian Jiaotong University, and Tsinghua University have been tasked with devising a computer system that can identify the team’s strength’s and weaknesses — though identifying the weaknesses hasn’t been the problem, particularly for China’s opponents on the field.

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China’s Illegal Football Gaming Rings

WORD ARRIVES FROM our man in London of a curious incident at a recent English football match. A Chinese national was questioned by anti-fraud authorities after being seen to be behaving suspiciously at a Football League One match between Coventry and Crawley on January 12. It was believed he was feeding details of the game to bettors in China faster than they would arrive through official channels thus letting the gamblers place instant bets that were a sure thing. The man, who was traveling on a tourist visa, was released without charges being pressed.

China is a big player in the global black market for football gaming, and has only just emerged from an endemic corruption scandal in its domestic game. Chris Eaton, a former policeman who was a security advisor to FIFA at the most recent World Cup in South Africa, where a Chinese gang running a sophisticated online betting network was uncovered, recently told the South China Morning Post that “China either needs to legalize and regulate sport betting or aggressively police and disrupt the illegal market.” He also called for Chinese police to join with regional and international forces to share intelligence on match-fixers and betting fraudsters.

Hong Kong, too, has had recent problems with match-fixing and illegal gambling on the game. At least two First Division clubs, Happy Valley and Tuen Mun, deregistered players suspected to be involved. In South Korea, 41 players from from the K-League were given lifetime bans last year following a match-fixing scandal after the  government threatened to shut down the league if action was not taken.

cai-zhenhua-china-football-table-tennis

Cai Zhenhua

That may have caught the eye of President Xi Jinping, who follows the sport. It would fit with his broader crackdown on corruption.

Nor would Xi be pleased with the embarrassing world standing of the national team. China is 92nd on FIFA’s latest world rankings; 39 places below South Korea and 44 below Japan. That may help explain the appointment of Cai Zhenhua, vice-president of the State General Administration of Sports (SGAS), i.e., the country’s sports vice-minister, as head of the scandal-tainted China Football Association. Cai is a former table tennis world champion who is credited with making China a world power in that sport as a coach. His new task will be to rebuild the reputation of Chinese football both on and off the field. “The stern reality of Chinese soccer forces us to make complete changes. I am burdened with a colossal task,” he says. Quite.

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Anelka Slinks Off From Shanghai Shenhua

One migrant worker is on the move ahead of New Year, but won’t be coming back. Nicholas Anelka, the French footballer who joined Shanghai Shenhua at the beginning of 2012, is returning to Europe. He is moving to Juventus of Turin after playing just 22 games for the Shanghai club. Shenhua finished the season ninth in the Super League. The sulky striker scored just three goals, and failed to fulfill the hopes that he would be among a wave of star names to revive the league as it recovered from corruption and match-fixing scandals.

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China Railway Construction Corp. Buys Into Inter Milan

Kenneth Huang of QSL Sports, Ms Kamchi Li and vice-president of China Railway Construction Corp.'s 15th Bureau Group Co., Ltd., new directors of Internazionale Holding S.r.l. with and Inter's majority shareholder Massimo Moratti. Chinese companies build sports stadia all over the world, though usually in developing nations not in one of Europe’s larger economies. So this Bystander is not sure whether state-owned China Railway Construction Corp.’s decision to become part of a Chinese investor group that is about to become the second largest shareholder of Italian football powerhouse Inter Milan–and get to build its new stadium–says more about it or the parlous state of the Italian economy.

The deal values the Italian team at $600 million, which would make it one of the 10 most valuable football clubs. The Chinese investor consortium, which includes QSL Sports, run by Kenneth Huang Jianhua (above left), a 15% stake. The lady in the center of the photo is China Railway Construction’s Kamchi Li; Inter’s Massimo Moratti is to the right. Huang and Li, along with financier Fabrizio Rindi, are joing the board of the club’s holding company following the deal. The Moratti family, which has been looking for outside investment for the club for some time, will remain the controlling shareholder of the football club.

China Railway Construction, for the benefit of younger readers, is the old railways construction arm of the People’s Liberation Army. It is now a state-owned enterprise with a Hong Kong listing.

Inter currently shares the venerable but municipal-owned Giuseppe Meazza stadium, better known still by its original name, the San Siro, with its cross-town rival AC Milan. But Inter’s president Massimo Moratti has long wanted to move his club to a home of its own. Now he has some one to build it.

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The 90M Yuan Migrant Worker

Former Chelsea football star Didier Drogba (C) arrives at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, east China, July 14, 2012. Drogba will take up his new role in Shanghai Shenhua FC. (Xinhua/Fan Jun)Our man amidst the muddied oafs tells us that Didier Drogba, the Ivorian Coast football star, received an enthusiastic reception at Pudong airport (above) when he arrived to join his new club, struggling Shanghai Shenhua. Drogba is the latest of a number of highly paid foreign stars, albeit mostly past the zenith of their careers, to ply their trade in the China Super League. The league is seeking both to restore some of the lustre lost in a widespread corruption and match-fixing scandal and to improve its low playing standards. Drogba will earn a reported 1.9 million yuan ($300,000) a week for such reconditioning services.

Though Drogba’s earnings are not our of line for a top player, we remain bemused by the convention of quoting footballers’ pay as weekly wages as if these young multimillionaires were still tradesmen. Drogba will be earning the equivalent of 90 million yuan a year. That is 3,600 times the average salary of a Chinese migrant worker. It is also, according to a report on the BBC, four and a half times Shanghai Shenhua’s annual income from ticket sales and advertising, which was just 20 million last year.

Wealthy individuals are being encouraged to take over the Super League’s clubs and infuse them with transforming cash, Zhu Jun, the colourful Irish-Chinese online video gaming millionaire in Shanghai Shenhua’s case. Drogba, and his teammate France international, Nicholas Anelka, will be no strangers to that. Both are former employees of Chelsea, the English Premier League club and current European champions, whose purchase by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003 triggered the latest inflationary round of billionaires flashing their cash at Europe’s top clubs.

So concerned is UEFA, European football’s governing body, that such concentrations of private wealth in a few clubs will destroy the competitiveness of the professional game in Europe–and with it UEFA’s golden goose–that it is planning to introduce financial fair play rules to limit clubs from spending more than they earn. If rich owners continue to subsidize the game in China, the Super League, too, will eventually have to face up to the same issue. Of course, there has to be a competitive league in the first place to destroy.

There is one reason, though, that that day of reckoning may be put off for a while. Beijing harbours hopes of hosting FIFA’s World Cup in 2026 or, more realistically, in 2030. The announcement of the winning hosting bids will likely be in 2018, and success would be a feather in the cap of President presumptive Xi Jinping, reputedly a keen football fan, towards the end of his term office. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 suggest there is little doubt that China could stage football’s showpiece event, but neither Beijing nor FIFA would want the embarrassment of a poor performance and early exit by the China national team. As ever, money, politics and sport are close bedfellows.

Footnote: As so many highly paid professional footballers profess, Drogba says his latest move isn’t about the money, but playing in China “for a whole new experience.” We, too, think we could enjoy pretty much any new experience for 1.9 million yuan a week, and it wouldn’t be about the money for us, either. Honest.

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