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Failure is necessary for greater grassroots focus - Wild East Football
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Failure is necessary for greater grassroots focus

The men’s national side’s struggles should see China prioritise its grassroots programme and learn from Iceland’s success. Just prepare for a proportionately longer journey.


Gao Hongbao reaching high

China’s disappointing attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup led to the departure of manager Gao Hongbo (pictured right). During his post-match press conference, the former Shanghai SIPG boss put his resignation down to poor health; avoiding the more likely reasons that included poor results, performances and team selections that blighted his tenure since starting in February of this year.

In the second group stage of qualification, China has so far failed to score in three of their four games and only earned one solitary point. Their results are hardly inspiring which isn’t ideal for a nation trying to generate a new found interest and passion for the sport.

The anguish and despair felt during The Red Dragon’s defeat in Xi’an to Syria (ranked 114th in the world) was understandable and probably put the final nail in Gao Hongbo’s coffin. The loss to Uzbekistan (ranked 49th) last Tuesday night was nothing more than a funeral. But these performances and results should go beyond a managerial change by triggering a rethink across football in China.



First of all, the expectations for China to make it through to the finals in Russia should be as low as their record of World Cup qualifications suggests irrespective of how much foreign imports Graziano Pelle and Hulk are earning. The only time they reached the finals came in 2002 when two of Asia’s stronger nations, Japan and South Korea, received automatic qualification as hosts, making it an easier passage for China.

Secondly, the current side only progressed from the first group stage thanks to a 2-0 win over an already qualified Qatar in their final group match. That victory saw China finish just three-points above a Hong Kong side who held them to two 0-0 draws. A pair of results that caused embarrassment and subsequent anger amongst a culture heavily concerned with saving face.

Finally, this is a nation with a football culture that is very much in its infancy. It’s rare to see children playing football in parks, compounds or on the streets whether you’re in a top-tier city or rural village.

So it was always going to be a tall order despite the football reform introduced by the Chinese government and lavish (overzealous) spending in the Chinese Super League (CSL).

But spending is one of the issues that needs readdressing. To the general public, all the money appears to going to overpaid foreign players, agents and stakes in clubs abroad.

The motives for Chinese businesses to invest in football are politically driven in search of guanxi and future opportunities. The recent deals involving clubs in England (West Brom, Aston Villa and Wolves) haven’t just been for the sake of gaining expertise within an established footballing nation and industry. Professor Simon Chadwick mentions in this BBC article that the recent investment in England’s Midlands is linked to the planned route for the high-speed HS2 rail project, something China is very well-practiced in and partly funding.

But there needs to be smarter investment at home with spending relative to the football pyramid i.e. more on the grassroots that will ultimately feed the professional level.

A great example of this is Iceland who during the summer only raised expectations and increased the pressure on China’s men’s national side.

With an over-publicised population of around 335,000 people (nearly 4,000 times less than China’s 1.3 billion), the small Nordic nation – better-known in the UK as a budget supermarket endorsed by Z-list celebrities – managed to not only qualify for the European Championships in France but also reach the quarter-finals, defeating England – the leading country in club football – along the way.

Iceland players celebrate winning at the end of the Euro 2016 round of 16 soccer match between England and Iceland, at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, France, Monday, June 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Iceland players celebrate winning at the end of the Euro 2016 round of 16 match between England and Iceland, at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, France, Monday, June 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

So how did they do it? Simply put, they invested money wisely and supported the development of players by training coaches to a high level and building facilities throughout their communities.

As you’d expect, Iceland suffers from the sort of winters Game of Thrones spends six seasons dreading. Subsequently, their government and FA built indoor artificial pitches that allowed children and professionals to train all-year round.

Strengthened by the TV money received from UEFA, Iceland set up an open training scheme that has resulted in around 600 qualified coaches. The standard of coaching has risen so much so that children as young as five are trained by UEFA B licence holders, of which there are 400. That’s roughly one to every 825 people, a ratio 13 times better than England.

Can the mighty China learn from these supposed minnows? Absolutely. Whether they will, and they really should, remains to be seen as the current approach is focusing more on the football powerhouses such as England, Germany, Spain and Brazil.

An area where China could also improve is the opportunities for children to play. In Iceland, they are bussed to the indoor arenas straight after school, particularly the younger ones, before the older kids roll in as the day draws to an end. The idea of Chinese children, however old, going straight from school to play football is as alien as a sensible word coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth. So opportunities to play within school hours is a necessary first-step.

When it comes to size and meeting expectations, China is like a 7-foot man with a particular body part that’s not in proportion. Meet expectations and it’s normal but it’s a disaster if they don’t. Where Iceland benefit from an opportunity to fulfill their potential, China suffers. The smaller the population the easier it is. A teacher would be far more likely to maximise the potential of a few students as oppose to a class of 30. With that in mind, China will need more time and a mind-blowing amount of resources before even getting close to replicating the success of the Icelandic’s. That’s not to say it is impossible, it just requires patience as well as a same page approach amongst provinces, cities and districts in this vast nation.

If China could mirror Iceland in terms of exceeding expectations, then the lofty ambitions that headlined the reform (host, qualify and win a World Cup) won’t seem so unlikely.

An aim not the aim
What does make for uncomfortable viewing is that the men’s national team is acting as the yardstick to measure the reform’s success. Whilst that’s an understandable aim for a proud and patriotic country, it shouldn’t be the only one.

Improving grassroots for boys and girls by getting them to regularly play the sport won’t guarantee national sides that are often victorious. It will however, prove a great platform for those participants to develop life skills that are transferable to school and the workplace. Playing any sport isn’t restricted to just physical benefits and that appears to be increasingly understood here.

Starting at the top of the pyramid with the influx of big foreign names made sense, although it should never have required quite so much money. But now that approach has improved the CSL and garnered further interest in the sport to the point Sky in the UK are broadcasting selected matches live, attentions should be diverted to a grassroots programme that will ensure not only the CSL but football in China is sustainable for years to come.

Right now, it’s like putting the most intricate and delicate icing on an inedible cake. Hopefully those in power will seek long-term success to satisfy their greed and meet the reform’s targets that include but aren’t exclusive to the men’s World Cup.

Peter has lived in Shanghai since October 2011. His interest in Chinese football has grown despite initially being put off by Nicolas Anelka's insistence on taking the worst (and every) set piece during his short stint at Shenhua. Peter has played and followed football since he was a kid and regularly deprives himself of sleep to watch Liverpool. He also has a blog (www.themumbler.co.uk) which covers both Chinese and English football.

Peter has lived in Shanghai since October 2011. His interest in Chinese football has grown despite initially being put off by Nicolas Anelka's insistence on taking the worst (and every) set piece during his short stint at Shenhua. Peter has played and followed football since he was a kid and regularly deprives himself of sleep to watch Liverpool. He also has a blog (www.themumbler.co.uk) which covers both Chinese and English football.



  1. Yiddo Huayi

    18/10/2016 at 07:15

    Great idea for indoor artificial turf. I would think this would be a great investment for China with it’s overly wet summer and frigid winter in the north.

    Artificial turf (and lighting), ironically is probably one of the best tools for grassroots development. The amount of use they get where I am is staggering (all year round – pretty much just football). The number of cancelled junior football games due to bad weather (affecting the natural grass pitches) are maybe 3 or 4 games a season at the most. The only times they have been cancelled on the artificials is when it has been snowing or hailing.

  2. Steve Crooks

    18/10/2016 at 11:29

    More artificial turf is undoubtedly a great idea for the reasons outlined above. One thing I do think we need to be wary of is bandwagon-jumping when it comes to following success, though – a lot of the English media would have had us following the French model by copying Clairefontaine, or the Spanish model by embracing tiki-taka, or now the German model; China should be just as wary of short-term bandwagons – after all, who’s to say they shouldn’t just copy the Welsh model by naturalizing a bunch of mid-ranking Englishmen? 😉

    Any kind of sustainable national footballing success tends to be a combination of a strong domestic coaching and grassroots network, football being the one standout national sport that attracts all the highest-potential athletes (clearly not the case here), and sticking to a philosophy of play while striking it lucky with a ‘golden generation’ or kind tournament draw. Iceland certainly get a lot right and there’s a huge amount to be admired there – but that’s arguably true of, say, the Ajax academy system too and neither that club nor the Dutch have exactly been tearing up trees lately.

    • Yiddo Huayi

      18/10/2016 at 15:25

      For every plus there is a minus. While Iceland can produce a football team that punches well above its weight it has also produced Bjork and hakari.

  3. Jamie McIlroy

    20/10/2016 at 20:34

    Some interesting points here, but I agree with Steve that it’s very bandwagonny to just suddenly take Iceland as an example of how to do it after just one good tournament.

    More importantly, though, there is no way the success or failure of the reforms can be judged on this World Cup qualifying campaign. Investing loads of money in the game isn’t going to suddenly change the quality of the players you currently have (unless you take the Qatari route and grant a lot of South Americans and Africans citizenship) so there’s no way to know if the investment is working.

    As Cameron pointed out in his article on the Sun, the western media likes to sneer at Chinese football and it seems like that Syria result was taken as proof that the reforms aren’t working, but they were never aimed at this World Cup and they’re not going to do any good for the next one either.

    Under-23s lost every game at this January’s Asian Cup and the under-19s just lost to Tajikistan in their Asian Cup, so there aren’t many positive signs for the next two cycles either. When those guys start losing at senior level, the same points will be made about the reforms not working, but it will again ignore the fact that that crop of players just isn’t that good and have come through too late to really benefit from any root and branch changes.

    I’m by no means suggesting the reforms will work and I think some of the suggestions in here have merit, but it’s impossible to properly judge them for at least ten years. Then, if Iceland have proved they are more than just a one-hit wonder, it could be worth looking at what they’re doing a bit more closely.

  4. Cameron Wilson

    21/10/2016 at 10:00

    I don’t think Iceland is a one-off – remember they almost qualified for the World Cup 2014. Would anyone be surprised if they qualify for Russia?

    For a nation with a population of just 330,000 to make it to the finals of Euro is nothing short of absolutely phenomenal – never mind getting past the first round, never mind getting to the quarter finals. This can only mean they have built some successful foundation.

    Whatever is going on up there, it’s definitely worthy of extensive study. China could do a lot worse than copy Iceland instead of more successful nations, after all Iceland and China are actually pretty similar when it comes to football – have barely appeared at any finals, small number of people playing the sport, big challenges to building football pitches.

    • Jamie McIlroy

      21/10/2016 at 12:50

      No doubt their achievements are amazing and the system definitely seems to be working for them but, as I said, one competition (and almost qualifying for another) doesn’t prove long term success so I just think it’s worth being cautious before saying that this is the model we should follow. As Steve mentioned above, England do that all the time and it does them no favours whatsoever.

      Again, though, the key for me as that these are long term plans that take a long time to bear fruit and I just can’t buy any kind of link between losing to Syria and reforms that were introduced over the last couple of years. There are a lot of models that could be worth a go, but we’ll have no idea whether they really worked or not for at least ten years.

      Do definitely agree on the drive to get as many properly trained coaches as possible, because that’s obviously a serious issue.

      • Steve Crooks

        21/10/2016 at 13:01

        Not in any way seeking to disparage Iceland, and of course China (and most other nations) could learn from their drive to get more people into coaching and to really push modern astroturf to negate climate limitations.

        Qualification for Russia doesn’t really prove or disprove this, though – this current Icelandic generation are performing fantastically. Just like the last Spanish generation did, and the current German generation is – and previous Dutch generations have. If one country has an overall overperformance across 10, 20 years then there’s clearly something to the system itself – best conclusions we can really draw from Spain/France/Germany as Europe’s long-term big guns is having a big, football-exclusive population and a lot of money to invest are pretty helpful. Asia-wise, similar lessons from Japan or Korea…

  5. Peter Rosselli

    03/11/2016 at 15:06

    Completely agree that China’s recent results should in no way be a gauge of the reform’s success (unless you’re a particular media outlet based in England). My concern is the fans’ willingness to be patient. The loss to Syria and subsequent protests outside the stadium seemed a more personal attack on those in charge but the supporters have to accept that it will be a bumpy ride to the ultimate goals set by the reform.

    The best thing to take from Iceland’s model are the access to facilities and their training of coaches. That’s something China needs to address with this current generation so they can coach the following. As Jamie rightly pointed out, the next couple of cycles aren’t going to be much different but they could be better coaches than they are players with the right support.

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