Guangzhou goes grass roots

Evergrande tycoon invests in soccer school


Getting results:Guangzhou Evergrande coach Marcello Lippi

Football pundits often fail to agree but last month they were unanimous on at least one point: the Germans now dominate European football. This conclusion was drawn after two German teams – Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – reached the final of the Champions League.

There was also surprising uniformity among football journalists in explaining how this had happened. An article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper was typical in noting that the key moment was Euro 2000 when Germany’s national side finished bottom of its group. A decision was then taken by the local league to make clubs establish football academies.

“Forced into an overhaul of youth football,” the Guardian records, “the clubs decided that the development of more technically proficient homegrown players would be in everyone’s best interests. This led to the creation of academies right across the top two divisions.”

Nurturing local talent worked. In a telling statistic, 26 of the players in the Bayern and the Dortmund squads are German and over half of them went through the country’s football academies.

As in many things, the Chinese feel they can learn a lot from the Germans. So while the economic tsars are trying to replicate the Mittelstand industrial structure, China’s soccer bosses seem to have taken the lessons of Germany’s youth development programme to heart.

As 21CN Business Herald points out, the most progress has been made by Guangzhou Evergrande, owned by real estate tycoon Xu Jiayin. He bought the club three years ago and has pumped Rmb1.3 billion ($211 million) into turning the team’s fortunes around, buying foreign players and installing Italy’s Marcello Lippi as coach. This has led to some success, including a recent 2-1 victory over Australia’s Central Coast Mariners in the last 16 of the Asian Champions League.

But Xu was quick to twig that buying players from abroad was not a sustainable long term strategy. According to 21CN he also had a “China dream” to foster homegrown footballing talent.

Last year Xu opened the club’s academy in Qingyuan in Guangdong. The Evergrande International Football School already has 1,000 students and the goal is to get that up to 3,150. A total like that would be more than all the other football schools in the country combined.

The principal of the school is the former secretary of the Guangzhou Sports Bureau, Liu Jiangnan. He says that once the institution reaches its target size, the 9 to 16 year-old age bracket will have 180 teams (currently there are 60), creating competitive internal leagues.

In the first phase, Xu and Liu plan to hire 435 faculty members, recruiting graduates from the country’s top 10 sports universities (lured by a monthly salary of Rmb6,400 and free room and board). A team of 30 teaching staff has been analysing successful academies abroad and breaking down the type of physical training and coaching that stars like Lionel Messi went through in their teens.

To this end, says 21CN, students will follow a “scientific” regime from 6.30am through till 10pm. But lest it sounds a bit like a boot camp, the newspaper also notes that Xu has sited the school near lush forests and that its classical European architecture even resembles Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

The training school plan does makes sense. When David Beckham visited China a couple of months ago (in his new role as an official ambassador for the Chinese soccer league) he stressed that the only way the country would ever have a chance of winning the World Cup was by focusing on the grass roots level. Xu’s boarding school is doing just that, although because it isn’t free, some talent will inevitably be overlooked. Each student must pay tuition of Rmb35,000 annually, suggesting the scheme is going to be out of the reach of kids from working class homes.

The school also forms part of a bigger business plan. It’s located near a holiday resort that Xu’s property firm has built and the hope is to build a broader tourism ‘cluster’ – presumably based on parents and scouts watching the kids train and compete. There’s also a PR benefit for the tycoon’s core business. After Evergrande beat Jeonbuk Hyundai of South Korea, delighted fans flooded internet forums with the message: “Buy Evergrande flats to support the development of Chinese football.”

Where Xu leads, it seems a cross-town rival is about to follow. Late last month Guangzhou R&F announced that it had partnered with English giant Chelsea to build a “football town” in Yanyang. The centrepiece of this development is the R&F Chelsea Football School. It too will seek to develop local talent and produce the soccer stars of the future.

In another announcement earlier this week, Guangzhou R&F also told media that former England manager Sven Goran Ericsson has joined the club as its new coach.

That will mean that two of the biggest names in European coaching will be picking the teams when the two Guangzhou teams play their next derby match.

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