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What a Shanghai youth tournament can teach us about football in China

It’s easy to be cynical when writing about football. The money pouring in globally and lining executives pockets, pay TV walls, working-class fans priced out as superstars pose on Instagram in Lamborghinis. Yes. It can be easy to forget why you fell in love with it in the first place.

So when a reader gave us the chance to check out their youth tournament, we thought it would be nice to take a look at the grassroots of football in China. Compare how that world differs to the CSL.

And what did we learn? We remembered why we really love football. But that the risks and opportunities around the grass root game are the same as more broadly in China, as well as the world.

Two teams compete at the tournament in Shanghai

The world’s only global language

Firstly and foremost anything that brings 600 kids from over 25 clubs, from as far away as Thailand is only good for the game. Watching children win, lose, cry, cheer and communicate in the worlds only global language was one of those moments when you realize why football is so great. And why it is up to all of us to protect it.

Director of Football Isaac and the rest of the AKSIL team deserve credit. If football is going to really take off in China it needs strong organizations and coaching to get kids playing the game.

Coach Isaac and the AKSIL U9 team celebrate victory

The older we get the worse we behave

Speaking to the coaches during the games there was one common risk to the setup. Parents. The overzealous parent acting as the overly vocal second coach is not one unique to China. Nor is coaches and parents complaining about referees. There was a wonderful sense of irony that the biggest risk to these tournaments going well is not how the kids play or behave, but adults. In football, age does not equal maturity. Luckily, in this case, the parents were on their best behavior.

The Premier League are coming

Foreign clubs have had their eyes on the Chinese football market for a while. And this tournament was held at a venue sponsored by Lyon, and the first prize was donated by Manchester City. At all levels, foreign clubs are influencing Chinese football.

Man City were sponsors through recruitment agency Hays. Moonchester the mascot made an appearance

It was still quite surprising to see a team made up of players wearing Stoke City shirts. With all due respect to Stoke, despite being a Premier League team, it was not one that is normally associated with a big global presence. We caught up with Ollie and Luke, two of the coaches who explained how they had set up a soccer school out of one of the International schools in Shanghai. The impact global clubs will have on the Chinese game is contested, but regardless, this shows that they will be having an impact at all levels.

Even in youth football, you can’t disconnect the politics

At the upper levels of Chinese football, the overlap between the game, politics, and business is only as obvious as it is murky. You would have thought that a youth football tournament would have avoided this. But hey, this is China. And a good amount of effort on Saturday went into ensuring the team from Xinjiang province were allowed to play and had the correct papers. They ended up having to register at the station after the police turned up.

On the plus side, not only did they register but they also won a medal.  The province also bought the tournaments only girls team who were “fearless” as one coach put it before showing plenty of the boys’ teams that regardless of gender you can kick ass playing the beautiful game.

The girls and boys from Xinjiang Province overcame politics to be at the tournament 

Grassroots football builds a football culture

In the end, despite it being a youth tournament it was very much a microcosm of football in China and more generally. Foreign clubs, misbehaving adults, and politics have an influence even at this level.

But grassroots and youth football is key to creating a football culture in any country. It is still the purest form of the game. And organizations like AKSIL and their youth tournaments are key to this in China.

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