Thankless job

Can Cai Zhenhua fix Chinese football, or is it a task too far?


More of this required: Cai wants to promote youth football participation

It’s not often an executive in the football world is compared to Jing Ke, the scholar and swordsman from the ancient kingdom of Wei. But that was the allusion drawn by the Beijing Evening News late last month, as it likened the task of the new chairman of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), Cai Zhenhua to the historical figure.

Jing volunteered to assassinate the King of Qin, although he wasn’t optimistic about his chances of succcess. Starting out on his mission, he even sang about the hopelessness of his task: “Wind blow, river freeze. The hero fords, never returns!” And sure enough, Jing does fail to return, stabbed to death by the man he was sent to kill. (Readers interested in a cinematic version of Jing’s story can watch Zhang Yimou’s Hero in which Jet Li plays the assassin.)

Stabbings aside, new football boss Cai seems rather aware of the historical analogies too. “The stern reality of Chinese soccer forces us to make complete changes. I am burdened with a colossal task,” he told media, before adding: “Perhaps I have embarked on the road of no return. But since this burden has fallen upon me, I will not hesitate to go forward.”

Unfortunately, as the Beijing Evening News hints, predictions of tragedy and disappointment are highly appropriate where Chinese football is concerned. As WiC has reported (many times), the game in China has been mired in scandal for years, suffering from corruption and match-fixing. The national side is a national joke too, which is why Cai has been brought in to stop the rot. Even so, it might seem like an unlikely appointment as Cai has made his name in ping-pong, not football.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the CFA has chosen an outsider – and from a sport in which China inspires international respect, rather than fits of giggles. Cai is a winner personally too. Between 1978 and 1985 he played for the national team and won the world table tennis championships. After that there was a successful coaching career, first helping the Italians (their ranking surged to seventh in the world) before being invited back to lead the Chinese team in 1989. Nicknamed the ‘Godfather of Ping-Pong’ by his adoring public, Cai consolidated China’s position as the game’s superpower.

He also developed a reputation for his “iron fist” management style, notes China National Radio. In a move that recalls Alex Ferguson’s rebukes for players who disappoint (known by British media as the ‘hairdryer treatment’), Cai was incensed when leading star Ma Wenge was late for one group breakfast, for instance. Cai slammed Ma’s timekeeping in front of the rest of the team, but the cocky Ma refused to apologise. Without hesitation – and with the World Cup just weeks away – Cai fired him on the spot. “You can go home to Tianjin and take a rest,” he told an astonished Ma. China National Radio says the boss took “a big risk” but the strategy paid off with Ma later admitting he was at fault.

Incidents like this helped consolidate Cai’s prestige within the Chinese sporting world in general. Promotion followed as he moved from coaching into more senior administrative roles, becoming deputy director of the General Administration of Sports of China in 2007. Today, the local media seems to consider him as one of the country’s most impressive homegrown sports executives, but even with his impressive credentials, it wonders if he is up to the enormity of the task.

Cai is the first to admit to the magnitude of the challenge. At his media briefing he talked bluntly about China’s footballing prowess. “We will not forget that our men’s national team last year lost to Thailand 1:5; nor that we haven’t been to three consecutive World Cups,” he said. The new boss added that it isn’t just the men who are underperforming: China’s women didn’t qualify for the most recent World Cup finals either, when Japan’s women won the trophy, exposing further how far China was lagging behind.

Cai said previous regimes at the CFA had made the mistake of thinking success would come too quickly, and hadn’t shown enough patience in introducing changes. Indeed, some of the earlier targets now look laughable. For example, a ‘10 Year Development Plan’ (published in 2003) envisaged that the mens’ national team would be ranked in the top eight by last year (they are currently 92nd, snapping at the heels of the New Zealanders). But Cai says his priorities are different and that success starts at the grassroots: “Only by further promoting the game among teenagers can Chinese soccer have a decent future. And how to solidify the youth foundation will be the pivot of our work here.”

Amazingly, the number of students registered as playing football in China is just 195,000, which is a third of the figure in 1995, according to CFA data. Cai is determined to lift the number of teenage players to 500,000 by 2017 and 1 million by 2022. To assist with this, a senior official at the Ministry of Education has been elected onto the CFA’s executive committee for the first time. Former national team captain Chi Shangbin welcomed the news, telling the China Daily: “The education department could help the youth soccer programme reach more schools at the grassroots level through its administrative power.”

Then there are the soccer academies themselves. Here too numbers have shrunk – from more than 1,000 in the 1990s to just 20 today. Mind you, there are some positive developments. In June last year (see WiC196) we profiled Guangzhou Evergrande’s giant new soccer school; and it was featured again last week in the Financial Times, which praised its Hogwarts-esque architecture and 50 pitches (with 30 more to come). “Almost certainly the biggest in the world,” the FT thought.

Guangzhou Evergrande’s team has been another brighter spot on the soccer landscape. Thanks to its foreign coach Marcello Lippi and a number of international players, it won the Asian Champions League this year (see WiC216). That was just the sort of fillip Chinese football needs to encourage more teenagers to put on their boots and shin pads.

Evergrande’s success is largely down to the vision (and money) of its owner Xu Jiayin, a property mogul and one of China’s richest men. His solution to rooting out corruption among the players is to pay them lavish bonuses to win games (outbidding those who would bribe them to throw them). His formula, as well as his foreign imports, have fostered a culture of greater professionalism at the Guangzhou side and Cai will be hoping that a similar process is about to occur in Shanghai too. Its main club Shenhua has been in a perilous state since its owners fell out over finances – a situation that led to the high profile departures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka (see WiC181).

According to Peninsula City News, the ownership row has now been resolved with key shareholder Zhu Jun selling his stake. Zhu promised much but largely failed to deliver during his seven years with the club. His personality may have been partly to blame as he liked to tell his coaches who to play ­– a propensity that saw him appoint, lose and fire 10 team managers.

The internet games tycoon will now be replaced by deeper-pocketed Greenland Group, one of the country’s most powerful real estate developers. Last year its sales reached Rmb162.5 billion, ranking it second nationwide after Vanke (by comparison, Xu’s Evergrande sold real estate worth Rmb108 billion).

The chairman of Greenland, Zhang Yuliang, has been giving strong hints that some of the firm’s balance sheet will be at Shenhua’s disposal. As he told media: “Greenland originally did not care about football, but we will make every effort to support Shanghai football and make Shanghai proud. The state of Shanghai’s football team is incompatible with Shanghai’s status and international influence.” Accordingly, fans are hopeful that Greenland’s resources will help Shenhua to challenge Evergrande in the seasons ahead.

Greater competition should also raise standards and boost the game’s profile. A better top flight league, backed by sustained investment is the short term solution to reversing the game’s decline in China. If this can be synchronised with an effort to generate more grassroots talent, the strategy should produce better results. Simply on the law of large numbers, a decent Chinese team should be possible, provided that there are enough players and they are coached properly.

Meanwhile Cai says he is remaining realistic about the challenges ahead. But he turned away from the kingdom of Wei in one of his other soundbites for the media throng. Instead he offered a space-age metaphor of hope. If China can launch rockets and target something as technically difficult as a moon landing, surely it’s not impossible that its national football team should eventually realise its potential too, Cai ventured?

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