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Worker’s Stadium Rambings: Where are all the young players?

I try to be an optimist, there is much to be happy about Guoan these days, especially as they currently top the table. I should be very happy, I should be over the moon, but there’s a thought I couldn’t get over as I saw Evergrande giving playing time to youngsters against Guoan last week, where are Guoan’s youngsters?

Beijing’s youth program has long been one of the best in China, regularly producing top players, however in the side that faced Evergrande there were only three players who were homegrown and among them, only one has come through in the past 10 years. What’s worse, manager Manzano seems allergic to playing youngsters and the aforementioned Lei, who was a key part of his lineup last season, has been used only sparingly and lately only because of an injury to Lang Zheng.

Failing to produce its own youngsters (or not even giving a shot to those in the squad), Guoan has gone out over the past two seasons and bought two defenders, Li Yunqiu (24 years old) and Li Lei (23 years old). Li Yunqiu wasn’t given much of a chance last year (Li Lei was only purchased during the winter transfer window this year), but both he and Li Lei were given a decent number of starts at the start of the year, when Manzano’s focus was on Asia and he rotated players heavily for league matches.

A few players (Yu Yang, Yang Yun, Ding Haifeng, Zhang Sipeng) have left the club and are getting regular playing time elsewhere in the CSL while others like Wang Hao, Li Hanbo, and Li Tixiang while away on the bench. Players who once looked like they would have promising careers when they were closer to 20, and who were given a shot under the previous two regimes, now find themselves stuck on pause or searching for success elsewhere.

Of the other sides at the top of the table, Shandong and Shanghai SIPG feature a number of young players they developed while even Guangzhou Evergrande have used a couple of U23 players (even if they were bought after stints overseas). As Guoan prepares for the end of an era with the eventual retirement of Xu Yunlong and Shao Jiayi (and Dalian produced Zhou Ting), they’ve had to look outside the club to find talent.

For a club that openly derides the transfer market as being an out of whack bubble where prices are not in line with quality, it would seem that a strong youth program is all the more important. Beijing doesn’t need a full generation of players like Liaoning had in the late 90s or the East Asia/SIPG side today, it doesn’t even need a group of players like Guoan had coming through in 2004, it just needs a couple of youngsters who can break into the starting lineup. Manzano has brought hope back to Beijing, but for sustained success we need to see the hope extended to younger players.

WEF is greatly honoured to have aboard B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese bloggersphere. Cheng has been the other lonely soul blogging in English about Chinese football over the last few years. With both Cheng and WEF’s editor linking back and forth to each others’ sites on a regular basis, it was probably inevitable that they would eventually join forces to try to illuminate and decipher the curious world of Chinese football, with their combined musings. Cheng’s credentials are second to none – his blog focuses not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese bloggersphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. Cheng very generously decided to climb aboard and give WEF his views on the issue of the Chinese footballing day.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Yiddo Huayi

    02/07/2015 at 19:48

    What sort of set up exists in China for youth development? I presume there is no youth league, although you’ve posted about clubs setting up academies.

    There’s a couple of other bits of info that I don’t know if there is any connection or needs to be:

    1. Is there any more development on the work the Trevor Lamb wrote about a few years back about grass roots football?

    2. When does the president’s grand master plan for football in lots of schools get going?

    Just wondering if there is all this building momentum then sooner or later there is going to be a bottle neck for youth football unless CSL and League One/Two etc can provide game time.

    AND while I’m at it: The Steel Roses did pretty blimmin good for a team that is poorly resourced compared with the likes of USA, Japan and England (probably even the Matildas and the Football Ferns). Will they be given a fair shake of the funding tree to allow the team to kick on in future?

    • bcheng

      02/07/2015 at 23:38

      Last point first, I’m pessimistic about the women’s team, they were okay but I think they really benefited from the expanded field. There has been a lot of discussion about bonus money and trying to get a level of professionalism back to the women’s game here, the School Football program is open to both boys and girls, but that’s unreliable, in any case, it will be interesting to see if the discussions were only due to national pride in the side or if people are going to take serious steps toward it.

      What you refer to as Xi’s plan is more just the CFA at Xi’s encouragement, School Football has been going on for a few years now and it has definitely raised participation in the game. There are some concerns with the program, despite getting more kids in cities playing football, the quality of coaching varies in the extreme, so how effective it is/will be is debatable.

      So, to be honest, I’m not sure what extent the youth program is in China (I guess its something I should know, right?). I know, for example, Guoan has a complete program, including U10s, but I don’t know who they play against (I’d guess its other “travel” teams from the sports or soccer schools in Beijing and nearby cities, but I don’t know). At the higher levels, they are definitely competing against other soccer schools, sports schools, elite youth teams, and CSL academies.

      • Yiddo Huayi

        03/07/2015 at 06:55

        Thanks for the update.

        I only saw the Steel Roses vs the Football Ferns (China vs NZ) but followed their progress through the Guardian which gave excellent coverage of the tournament. Based on what I saw I thought they were a pretty good side and well worth their progress into the round of 16 and perhaps unlucky against the USA. Just imagine what they’d be like if they had the resources that England had.

        Of course they are a lot better supported than the African teams which is a major travesty, especially when it comes to showcasing their nation on a world stage.

        Re your article about Beijing youth players not making it to the match day squads, how many of them are picked up by other clubs? In the end it shouldn’t matter if they don’t turn up in green at the Workers’ Stadium as long as they turn up somewhere else in a professional competition surely?

        • bcheng

          03/07/2015 at 09:06

          Of the group of youngsters now in the 23-25 age group, it’s a relatively even split: 5-6 are playing elsewhere (pretty much all in the CSL) and 3-4 are wallowing away on the bench in Beijing. Of course there are a few that didn’t make it. Overall, your point is taken, it’s great to have these players playing professional football somewhere, but as a Guoan fan, it just seems a lot of these young players aren’t even given a shot under Manzano. It looks like Manzano will be here for awhile and so what might only be a small issue now could get worse (it could even lead to his departure if Guoan doesn’t prove willing to spend).

          This brings up another point of concern for some, outside of Xu Yunlong, there isn’t a single Beijinger in the starting XI and going further through the lineup there’s only 2 others who regularly are on the bench. There’s of course something else to consider in all of this that I didn’t bring up due to the complications from it, while a number of the current 23-25 year olds made it into the different youth national teams (be it U17, U20, or U23), there aren’t many Guoan players in those squads today. I’m not sure why that is but I’d imagine there isn’t one simple answer. Guoan’s always pulled into its academy talent from around the country with some of the best not being locals (Huang Bowen, Zhang Xizhe, Lei Tenglong) so my hypothesis is that the quality of coaching and youth programs around the country is improving so players are staying home, but who knows.

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