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Wild West Football – Will China’s first superstar player come from somewhere you never heard of?

When it comes to most things in China, the eastern seaboard is the most developed part of the country and is where the vast majority of football-focused investment takes place. In the CSL, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, … just some of the eastern cities where most of the CSL teams are based. But there’s plenty of evidence that the big-name academies and youth programs are looking on the wrong side of China. Nicholas Gineprini , author of the Italian-language book The Chinese Dream: The history and Economics of Chinese football, explains how.

Many Chinese professional football clubs are located in the east and south side of the country – provinces like Guangdong, Shandong and Jiangsu are among the most developed areas of China. The CSL has three clubs in the north east known as Dongbei. But in Heilongiang, China’s most northerly province, there is only one team and they currently play in League Two. Liaoning province is much better off for clubs – it was home to the greatest dynasties of Chinese football during the ’80 and ’90s: the north East Tigers of Liaoning FC, who in 1990 became the first Chinese club to win a continental competition, and Dalian Shide, the most successful club in the history of Chinese football that doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays, Shenyang has three clubs, Liaoning in the CSL, Urban and Dongjin in League Two, whilst Dalian has three teams: Yigfang and Transcendence in League One and Boyang in League Two.

If we look at the map of professional Chinese football (covering the CSL, CL1 and CL2), we can see that there are four clubs in Beijing, two in Tianjin (Quanjian and Teda in the CSL), Five in Shanghai and six in Guangdong. In the Chinese Super League there are only two clubs in the west: Chongqing Lifan and the newly promoted Guizhou Zhicheng. In League One this number grows to four, with Wuhan Zall and three clubs in the border provinces of Yunnan, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

China is changing from having an economy based on quantity to one based on quality, under a plan known as “Made in China 2025”. The focus is to be less on industry and more on the tertiary sector and services: this is what is happening in the east side, where the cost of labour  is high and has reached the level of Greece and Portugal. This is causing heavy industry to move to the west side of the country, which is now the fastest growing region thanks to two large scale projects, the “Go West”, a plan to develop the occidental provinces of China and “One Belt One Road”, which aims to connect China to the rest of the world via a vast logistical network focused on stretching across Eurasia.

China is now aiming to become a football superpower and attract investment and expand its influence via soft power. But despite East China having more professional clubs and infrastructure, if you walk  the streets of Beijing or Shanghai you can see only basketball courts. Football pitches are difficult to spot as most of are located inside public or International schools. It is fair to say that football is not a big participation sport in large Chinese cities. Yet still, football investments from European football clubs and academies are still concentrated on eastern China.

In recent times there has been much activity focused on bringing academies to China, particularly those of the big European clubs. And yet, the late, great Johan Cruyff once said, “The football talent born in the street”. So if we want to predict a future for Chinese football, the federation should take a look at the west, far from the bustling metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai.

Lijiang – Naxi minority football

Kids playing football in Lijiang

Yunnan province is in the south west of China and its name means “south of the clouds”. China’s most ethically diverse area, it mixes globalization with a large concentration of the country’s ethnic minorites . It is not a particularly wealthy province and has a population of 45 milion people. Yet football is very popular here. Despite this the capital city of Kunming has not had a top division team since the early 2000s. More recently, third tier Ruilong FC  played two season in League Two in 2012 and 2013 before leaving the city.

Big European clubs have a presence however, such as Real Madrid, with the Yunnan Football Elite Camp, in partnership with the Normal University Business School. Liverpool also run a student exchange program. However the most significant football project in the province is not in Kunming, but in Lijiang, a small city by Chinese standards with a population of just 1.2 milion and better known as a tourist mecca.

In Lijiang you won’t find much of a city skyline, but it’s a very traditional part of the country where football is very popular, especially among the Naxi community, an ethnic group thought to originate from Tibet. In 2014  CCTV featured an interesting six-part documentary on the development of Chinese football, and in the second episode, featured the grassroots game in Lijiang. He Quangxiang, a football coach at a local primary school, said that the population had a longstanding love of the game: “Our grandfathers’ generation played football. Some of our kids joined professional clubs, and want to compete to reach the national team”.

As we can see in the video, football schools in Lijiang lack modern facilities, but we can find many open spaces, where kids can play freely, something not possible in big cities. This represents a different path of football development. The city now has a professional club – Yunnan Lijiang FC, established five years ago. They won promotion promotion to China League One as League Two champions last year. They played the first match of this season against Shenzhen in front of 7,700 people, an impressive number in the Chinese second tier.

Xinjiang – Urumqi Middle School’s dominance

Urumqi no 5 Middle School pupils at play. Source: GBtimes

In future, who will be the next great football star of China? Someone named Zhang, or someone with an Islamic name? From Yunnan we now go to the north, to the desert of Xinjiang, and its capital, Urumuqi, the city furthest from the sea than any other. Here, as the old Chinese saying goes, “the mountains are high and emperor is far away”.

Despite all the cultural, religious and social tension between the Uyghur and Han population, Urumqi is crazy about football, and the city’s No. 5 Middle School has the strongest team of its age group in China, bettering more illustrious Chinese youth teams from Evergrande, or Shanghai’s Xu Genbao Academy. The team were crowned champions at the National Youth Campus Football Championship Finals four times in a row from 2012 to 2015, the only four years the national tournament has been held. They even won four editions of the Weifang Cup at U13 level, the most important International tournament held in Shandong Province, where they swept aside Korean and Japanese sides.

So, Xinjiang may become a football superpower, but cultural and political problems overshadow football in the region. Yali Memet, a football coach at the school) told the Global Times last year: “As far as I can remember, in my 22 years working here, we have been crowned champions in almost all the tournaments we took part in, and were runners-up only twice,” he said, adding, ” Football has been strong in Urumuqi since the 80s, but currently, there are just five professional players in Super League who were born in Xinjiang, and our only professional team of Xinjiang plays in League One”

Memet said the majority of kids playing football at the school are Uyghur, not Han: “Most kids in Xinjiang don’t like schoolwork, and even their parents don’t think reading books is useful. But most will not become professional players in the future, so if they quit school so early, what can they do?”

He added, “They can only do some easy jobs, making little money. Some might even turn to crime. A lot of people have asked me, ‘Why are Xinjiang kids are so good at playing football in primary school, but few of them become professional players in the end?’ I blame the different perceptions and customs – a lot of them get married at 17 or 18, and begin to drink and smoke at an early age, that way, they’re ruined.”

More investment from the Sports Bureau in football infrastructure is planned for Xinjiang, and the region’s best players are to continue to play in “key football schools” in other parts of China. For example, Guangzhou R&F’s football schools in Meizhou (in partnership with Chelsea),  host many kids from Xinjiang province. One such R&F school hosts 20 Uyghur kids from 7 to 14 years old, – can they represent the future of Chinese football, with their combination of natural talent and the support of a major Chinese youth football school?

Inner Mongolia – future regional football powerhouse?

Another province, another desert – the Gobi. Even out here on the northern edge of China, Inner Mongolia wants to become a football super power, and they have the money to do it. Last year the province’s Sport Ministry spent USD 7 million on football infrastructure, and a great number of schools have a football team.

Daniele D’Eustacchio is an italian coach at a football school in Wuhai, a city on the west side of the province that no one has heard of: “If you say to a Chinese that you come from Wuhai he will always say… ah Wuhan is nice… but then you have to explain we are in Wuhai, in the extreme north of the country, not right in the middle”.

The city is located near the yellow river, between the Gobi and the Ordos deserts. D’Eustacchio explained the local economy is built on dairy products and beef which is considered by some to be the best in Asia, but that the city lacks the vibrant leisure and nightlife facilities of bigger cities which makes it difficult to attract people to come here and difficult to build relationships with those who do make it.

“I think football can help change this however, I want to create a football club to help build partnerships overseas, I think football can be a great instrument of diplomacy to help sport contribute to the economy – Maybe one day Wuhai will be a household name through football.”

Daniele d’Eustacchio coaching in Wuhai

There is no a strong football tradition in Inner Mongolia like compared to Xinjiang or  Yunnan, but the development pace is picking up in the shape of youth tournaments, the most recent of which like featured Russian and Mongolian teams along with five domestic teams from Dalian, Qingdao, Wuhan, Chengdu and Guangzhou, with a total of 200 young players involved. As such these competitions have helped connect Inner Mongolia school football to the rest of China.

The province features two professional football teams, the biggest, Nei Mongol FC currently play in League One. It’s a young club, born just six years ago, which finished second in League Two in 2014.

The club enjoys a large fan base for a League One Club, with more then 10,000 at the stadium every week, impressive for the team from Hohhot. The other club is called Baotou Nanjiao, which has been around since 1998, but became professional just two years ago with the financial support of the local Sports Bureau.

Football, like the economy in Inner Mongolia, is growing fast and investment in grassroots activity here may yet see another western region, along with Yunnan and Xinjiang, play a key role in the future of Chinese football.

Italian Journalist, i study chinese football since 2013. Author of the book “Il sogno cinese: storia ed economia del calcio in Cina” (The chinese dream: history and economy of chinese football), and director of, an italian website about chinese football. I was graduated in pharmaceutical chemistry, but you know… football in Asia is more interesting, not only in matches, but even in economic and polital aspects. Football is a way of communication, is a way to know other countries, other cultures. I’m tryng to build a way that may connect italian and chinese sport industries with the Physeon Association, throught a platform communication. Facebook: Blog Calcio Cina Twitter: @NGineprini

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