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Training the next generation at the Guangzhou R&F Soccer School

Much has been made of President Xi Jinping’s desire to improve the state of Chinese football and have 50,000 schools specialising in football by 2025. Guangzhou R&F were ahead of the curve as their school opened in 2013. With U23 players set to become increasingly important in the CSL, WEF takes a look at the R&F Soccer School.

Announced mid-season in 2013, the R&F Soccer School opened in September that year. The venture is a cooperation between Chelsea and R&F, and the school’s official Chinese name is 富力切尔西足球学校 (切尔西 is the translation of Chelsea). Strangely though, the official English name is just R&F Soccer School. Apart from the PR benefit of being associated with the English champions, the link provides access to coaches and coaching materials from Chelsea’s own academy. However, a potential money spinning friendly with Chelsea is yet to materialise. Apart from this tie-up, the R&F Soccer School is notable for three other factors.

Guangzhou R&F play in the heart of the Cantonese city but the R&F Soccer School is 400 miles away in the far east of Guangdong. Or Yanyang Town in Meizhou to be more specific. This is significant because Meizhou is known as the ‘hometown of football.’ This is no idle boast, it is a title bestowed upon Meizhou by the National Sports Committee back in 1956. At least part of the reason for this was the inter-war footballing exploits of Lee Wai Tong who grew up in Meizhou. Since then, the likes of Xie Yuxin, Li Jianhua and Liu Binbin have all come from this relatively isolated part of Guangdong and gone onto represent China. Current Guangzhou R&F players Zeng Chao and Ye Chugui are also from the area. The R&F Soccer School hopes to unearth the next footballing star from this particularly productive patch of Chinese soil.

The second notable factor is the size of the R&F Soccer School. Whilst Cantonese rivals Guangzhou Taoabo Evergrande have what is reportedly the world’s largest academy, R&F have taken a very different approach. Favouring quality over quantity, the school opened with just 145 students from the 1,300 that applied. There are now about 250 students aged 7-15, spanning primary and the initial years of secondary education. This is just 10% of the pupils at the Evergrande academy. However, R&F’s emphasis on producing fewer, higher calibre players is already starting to pay dividends. R&F youth teams have won nine national championships over the past two years. The players’ skills are honed with two hours of practice each day on some of the school’s 14 floodlit pitches.

The third factor is that the 500 million RMB school is not all about football. In a society which places such a high value on education as China does, the parents simply wouldn’t have it any other way. Formal education is provided in conjunction with Dongshan Middle School to ensure that the boys develop in a rounded way. As school principal Hong Youqiang says “a good player must first be a good student.”  With fees of 30,000 yuan per year (covering tuition, board and lodging) the school should be able to produce both good players and good students.

The future of the R&F Soccer School

In a boarding school attended by such young pupils from as far away as Xinjiang, there are inevitably problems with homesickness. Principal Hong is aware of the negative effect that this can have on the pupils and is making it compulsory for children to leave school each weekend. As only a minority of pupils are from Meizhou, this is easier said than done. Hong believes that the Meizhou Government and/or local businesses can be prevailed upon to give parents of these children a job in the local area in order to support their child’s development.

Another change next year will be the opening of a high school for older pupils. In keeping with the all round educational philosophy, this will be equipped with classrooms and labs alongside dormitories and a canteen. The high school will be open to graduates from the existing R&F school as well as pupils from elsewhere. In a bid to encourage new talent, R&F are offering three year scholarships for up to 20 new students who must be academically gifted as well as good at football.

R&F’s wider youth player network

The R&F Soccer School sits at the heart of a much wider network of ‘R&F Soccer School Satellite Centres’. About 2,000 students are currently enrolled at these centres which helps to balance the Meizhou focus on quality over quantity. There are centres throughout Guangdong and even as far afield as Xinjiang, each usually linked with local schools and/or football bodies.

The R&F academy network. The R&F Soccer School is shown in blue, names in yellow show open centres, whilst green names indicate planned centres.

R&F’s commitment to youth football goes even deeper than this. For example, R&F have sponsored primary and secondary school cup competitions in Guangzhou for the last three years. They also have strong links to Guangzhou Number 89 Middle School which effectively represents a separate youth training system for R&F. The school’s U14 team in particular is currently doing well in the national league. Local hero and Guangzhou R&F player Lu Lin has also set up his own football school. The ‘Lu Lin Football Club’ will train children aged 5-9 and has signed a cooperation agreement with R&F.

Finally on the youth development front, R&F’s sister team in the Hong Kong Premier League also has a youth section. Developing and playing local players was a condition of R&F being allowed to enter the Hong Kong league last year. Consequently, R&F are linked with Hong Kong’s Freemen FC who run the U13 to U18 sides.

Path to becoming a professional

Whichever part of the R&F network the children are part of, they share one common goal: becoming a professional player. Those with the talent will be able to progress into the Guangzhou R&F reserve set-up. From there they can follow Chang Feiya and Huang Zhengyu in pulling on R&F’s blue shirt at Yuexiushan.

However, it is inevitable that not all R&F Soccer School students will make it as professional footballers. To help persuade parents that a safety net is in place, R&F have secured partnerships with the Jiaying Institute in Meizhou (which shares some of the R&F Soccer School facilities) and the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou. Both of these will offer priority admission to R&F Soccer School graduates unable to gain a professional contract. Alternatively, the R&F Soccer School graduates can stay at the school to train the following generation, or move into employment with the R&F Property Group.

Investing in an academy does not bring short term gains. Nor does simultaneously spending millions of RMB refurbishing your home stadium and separate training base whilst also funding a development team in the Hong Kong league. Yet this is exactly what R&F have done. Their CSL rivals are breaking transfer records but Guangzhou R&F seem to be taking a different approach. It’s heartening to see them reigning in their transfer spending and looking to focus on the long term.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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