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China National Team

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.

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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.

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Expectations
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.

Investment
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.

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