Guangzhou Evergrande owner Xu Jiayin has urged continued investment in youth development, insisting that despite his efforts in establishing the world’s biggest football school he is yet to see any ‘Lionel Messis’ coming through.
Xu, one of the biggest players in Chinese football over the past decade, was speaking as a delegate at the ongoing People’s Congress in Beijing, where the great and good of China assemble to discuss the country’s development.
Evergrande are major players in the real estate market in China, but it is football success and grandstanding which has propelled Xu to fame across the country. It is little surprise, then, that the Henan-born billionaire quickly turned to his favourite topic.
“We should focus investment on youth development,” Xu told a press conference.
“As for saying: is China hiding seven thousand Messis? [Evergrande] are the largest football school in the world, with 2800 students from 7 to 16 years old.
“At 7 and 8 years old, we have 500 students in each year, then we gradually reduce it until after the age of 13 when we send them to our school in Spain. All our coaches are from Real Madrid, yet until now we have seen no Messis. As for Cristiano Ronaldos, we haven’t seen any either.
“But we are putting more and more effort into youth development and I am sure that among China’s one-point-something-billion people we have many talented players.”
Evergrande Football School has attracted much international attention since its 2013 opening given its size and the ambitious nature of the project. It’s Chinese coaching staff are led by a team from Real Madrid foundation and, in 2016, a first academy graduate appeared in the CSL in the form of 16-year-old Zhang OK (Zhang Aokai).
However, locally there are criticisms over the nature of the project and whether there is truly ambition to develop top-level players—or simply to earn political points while charging high fees for attendance.
Xu, surprisingly, also issued a rebuke of large spending in the CSL by insisting foreign player recruitment should not be made into a competition.
For those who remember Evergrande breaking the Chinese transfer record on several occasions in recent years to bring in Dario Conca, Lucas Barrios, Ricardo Goulart and Jackson Martinez, the irony in such comments will be difficult to miss.
“I think we have made great progress in recent years, the football market is strong and now is the best in Asia,” Xu insisted.
“The level of the CSL has also improved a lot. I think regarding foreign recruitment, it should match the level of Chinese football. We shouldn’t make recruiting foreign players into a competition.”
Maintaining close ties to the CFA and central government have been key to Evergrande’s strategy over recent years, to the point where they are currently funding the salary of national team head coach Marcello Lippi.
Lippi, having originally agreed to return to the Guangzhou-based club, is tasked with turning around the fortunes of China’s much beleaguered national side.
Once more, Xu was highly optimistic of quick improvement.
“I think the national team will go up a level in the next two years, because now we have a world class coach,” he added.
“The management structure is now in the hands of the head coach.
“With world class coaches, as well as the head coach controlling the management structure, I believe the national team will take a step forward.”