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Will China win the football world cup?

On Tuesday a group of experts assembled by Young China Watchers gathered to discuss the various problems facing Chinese Football. On the panel was WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson, Mailman’s Denis Green and Ruofu Zhou and First Pick Group‘s Harry Spencer. Aron Solomons reports.

With just over 100 days until the football World Cup in Russia, every bar in Shanghai is no doubt already planning its tactics to lure in the cities residents to watch the games.

One notable admission to the quadrennial party will be China. Despite 1.2 billion people, China not only did not qualify for the world cup, but is ranked 68th in the world. To put that in perspective, that is below Cape Verde (62nd ranked). To put that in even more perspective, Cape Verde has half the population of Jingan District.

But there is a lot of focus on football in China. At some point the second most popular profession of laowais may become football coach (obviously English teacher is still first). And China has set the ambitious target to win the world Cup by 2050.

But can they win the world cup? A group of China football experts organized by Young China Watchers discussed this on Tuesday night. Young China Watchers is a young professionals group who organize events focused on China both here in Shanghai and abroad. And unfortunately, according to the for the panelists, qualification was less than certain, never mind winning.

A lot of the discussion was focused around how football has evolved recently in China and its future direction.

There were common trends and points of agreements amongst the panelists. That the vast swathes of money in Chinese football was being to a large extent wasted on transfers and should be plowed into the grassroots game.

That the focus needed to be on raising the quality of coaches and creating a culture where more people play, not only the kids of parents willing to pay the clubs get to play. There also needs to be more pitches for kids practice. A problem especially notable in Shanghai where pitches cost 600 RMB per hour.

There was also unity in the fact that the fans are ignored. Whether it is the fact that away fans have to leave after 70 minutes when watching in Dalian to prevent the chance of crowd trouble, or scalpers getting hold of all the tickets before they go on general sale.

Go to an SIPG game and it will frequently be “sold out” but half empty. Fans are not the priority of club owners who are more interested in getting their logos on shirts and building guanxi with the powers that be.

The talk took an interesting dynamic when discussing the muscling in of foreign clubs into China. Cameron Wilson, founder and editor of the English language China football bible Wild East football is very much a football purist, a defender of the Chinese game. His viewing of foreign clubs as just trying to milk the cash cow of China nicely contrasted with Harry, Denis, and Ruofu, who both work in the more international elements of the game and were less hostile, who saw them more as providing blueprints of how Chinese clubs can look to build.

It is evident that despite the sizable financial and political investments in football, there remain immense structural obstructions to the success of the national team. Whether that is the lack of money in the grass roots game, or the need of a coherent strategy to put fans first and build a football culture. To create the same obsession China has with gold medals as World Cups.

Without change, it will be hard for China to qualify, and we who live in Shanghai will be forced to spend the summer watching Spain play in Malabar

The four panelists were:

Cameron Wilson (founder and editor, Wild East Football)
Denis Green (Head of International Media and PR, Mailman Group)
Harry Spencer (Co-Founder of First Pick Group and Star Coaching)
Roufu Zhu (Sports Director, Mailman Group)

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