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China goes back to the future with U25 training camp

The latest bizarre policy to hit Chinese football isn’t the first time unusual top down measures have been attempted.

For anyone who has missed the news, 55 Chinese U25 players have been called up to an, at least partly military, training camp which will last the rest of the season. This effective player nationalisation deprives CSL and China League One sides of their best young players for the crucial final games of 2018. There are also rumours that this is the first step to inserting a national team into the domestic league for 2019. That the training camp will be led by Shen Xiangfu – once described as “the lord of anti-football” – has drawn further scorn.

Others – both Chinese and foreign, in written and spoken form – have talked about, puzzled over and raged against the latest and most bizarre decision to hit Chinese football. This article doesn’t add to that. Nor does it support the seemingly indefensible policy. Instead, it looks at China’s footballing history to illustrate the culture that some of the decision makers grew up with and, just perhaps, explain part of their thinking in 2018. Assuming that there is some thinking to explain.

Separating the elite

Only the best should become professional footballers, and China has a history of separating the best of the best for special treatment. Whilst the 55 players selected are not China’s 55 best U25s – some of those are with the senior squad, others with the U21 squad preparing for the Olympics –  the idea of separating them is part of a long, if not particularly successful, tradition. It’s hard to think that the CFA/GAS would not know about these previous policies.

They started in the 1950s. After years of international and civil wars, multiple aspects of Chinese society were in a rebuilding phase. Whilst the centralised sporting system was copied from the Soviets, China needed help implementing Soviet style training methods to improve their national side. With the full internationals deemed not good enough, a largely U20 squad of 25 players earmarked for future international status were sent to train in Hungary for 18 months. A few years later seven of them were involved in China’s first attempt to qualify for the World Cup. They failed at the first hurdle as China couldn’t get past Indonesia in the opening round.

China’s economy may have been changing in the late 1970s, but football remained centralised and state-sponsored. Keeping the national squad together for long foreign tours was common. Some were multi-country tours, playing against different opponents. Other tours were aimed specifically at training. In January 1987 for example, the senior squad went to Brazil for a one and a half month training camp led by a local coach in preparation for the Olympic football qualifiers. With the Chinese players all ‘state-sponsored amateurs’ they could field their full national side in qualification and duly came top of their qualifying group. However, the PRC had always held this advantage and never qualified before. Did Brazil make the difference?

Old traditions die hard

Attempts to manufacture champions by giving the hand-picked few special treatment continued in the professional era. What was dubbed the Jianliabo youth team was sent to Brazil in 1993 for a multi-year training programme. Players such as Li Tie, Li Weifeng and Li Jinyu all played in Brazil and became key players for the first Chinese side to qualify for a World Cup. Whether the Jianlibao team worked is a difficult question to answer though. Was Li Tie, for example, always destined to be an international standard player or did the Jianlibao experience significantly help him?

Hosting the 2008 Olympics meant China automatically qualified for the football tournament. In preparation, a youth squad was sent to train in Germany. More recently, a Chinese U20 team was parachuted into a German regional league so that they could benefit from playing tougher opposition. Always a controversial idea in Germany, it became an unpalatable one in China after flag waving by German crowds. The experiment ended prematurely.

A national team in a domestic league

China also has experience of parachuting national teams into domestic leagues. This happened in the earliest days of football post 1949, but also just before the arrival of professionalism. Each year from 1988 to 1991, there was a national team in the top domestic division. Led by Xu Genabo, they finished second in 1988 and won the league in 1989 . The Chinese Olympic team finished 6th in 1990, just above relegation, but were 7th the following year. They were spared relegation though because Olympic qualifying meant they didn’t enter the league the next season. China made it to the second qualifying round but missed out on a place in Barcelona because of a loss in their final game. Participating in the league didn’t help China to qualify, but did they get closer to qualifying than they otherwise would have done?

Plenty of playing experience

Not all good players make good coaches – many would point to Shen Xiangfu here – and some good coaches were not good players. The powers that be seem to value playing experience though, as the men charged with running the training camp have plenty of that. Given that the senior side is led by Lippi and that Gus Hiddink is in charge of China’s U21s, it is interesting that the U25 leader and coaches are all Chinese.

Shen Xiangfu and his deputy for the training camp Lin Lefeng were international teammates in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were part of that fortunate generation of Chinese footballers who came of age as the country was emerging from sporting isolation. Shen and Lin were on the first Chinese tours of the US, South America and Western Europe. Dalian born centre back Lin and Beijing left winger Shen were also part of the team that were just 90 minutes away from qualifying for Spain’82 and finished second in the 1984 Asian Cup. Unfortunately for Lin, he was also on the pitch when Hong Kong infamously beat China 2-1 in 1985.

Shen has an extensive coaching history covering Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou Pharmaceutical – as today’s Evergrande Taobao were once known – Shanghai Shenhua, Henan and Changchun, as well as a spell in Japan. The playing style of Shen’s teams is not always fondly remembered though.

World Cup and Olympic pedigree

Shen’s assistants for the camp also have plenty of experience. Gao Sheng’s international career briefly overlapped with Shen’s and he later played under Shen when the latter was the manager of Fujitsu – now Kawasaki Frontale – in Japan. In between, Gao was part of the all-conquering Liaoning provincial team that won the Asian Club Championship in 1990 and a hatful of domestic titles. Gao’s international career included playing in the PRC’s first ever football team at the Olympics after being part of the 1987 training camp in Brazil, and falling just three minutes short of qualifying for Italia’90.

Whilst Shen, Lin and Gao came close to the World Cup, another training camp assistant actually played in it. Yang Chen represented China in Japan-Korea 2002. The Beijinger was also the first Chinese to play in the Bundesliga.

Shen’s third assistant is Ma Wei. Ma is probably best known as the first Chinese player to move on a ‘bosman’ free transfer when he joined Qingdao in 2003. He has previously coached national youth teams though.

Finally, Xu Liang was the CFA young player of the year in 2002. The midfielder was something of a freekick specialist and once scored from inside his own half. He holds the distinction of having played for Liaoning, Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou Pharmaceutical, and Shanghai Shenhua, overlapping with Shen at the final two. The 37 year old also played for Shenzhen in China League One earlier this season. Given the CFA’s disciplinarian streak, Xu could be seen as an odd choice. He was once dropped from the Chinese U23 team for breaking a curfew. Luckily this was pre-punishment bingo or he could’ve found himself suspended for a year.


Looking at Chinese football history perhaps makes the U25 training camp decision easier to understand, although fails to justify it. Whilst these policies are presumably familiar to Chinese administrators, they are not notable for having worked elsewhere. For the CFA and/or the GAS to turn back the clock and repeat old methods in the vain hope that they will work now when they didn’t before fits well with the often quoted definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Main image from Titan Sports Plus

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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