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Editor's Column

Mediocre Asian Cup campaign beckons for China

WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson returns with his regular-ish column.

Happy 2019 to all our readers. The WEF editors column is back for a new new year, but the same old problems appear to still be dogging our beloved Chinese football.

China kick off their 2019 Asian Cup campaign a few hours from now with a squad largely filled with many of the same names who have so under-performed in the past. Despite CSL clubs being forced to field u23s for the past couple of seasons, China’s squad features just three players from this age bracket. It is fair to say that not a great deal in the way of young talent has been unearthed by the rules, which require all clubs to start at least one u23 player and use a total number of u23 players not less than the number of foreign players they start.

However, there are a few notable exceptions to this who are missing from the China squad – Deng Hanwen, Zhang Xiuwei, He Chao are all players in the u23 age bracket and its hard to see why none of them made it to Lippi’s squad for the tournament in UAE. One of China’s biggest problems is that many players don’t become first team regulars at their clubs until after their 25th birthday, or even later in some cases. By the time they are at their peak mentally and technically, they only have a couple of years before going into physical decline. Chi Zhongguo and Piao Cheng, both 29 yet with only a few caps between them, and called up to the current squad after a successful season with Beijing Guoan, are two such examples.

The only way to break this vicious circle of late development is simply to give players their debuts earlier. Yet in China, where a culture of deference to seniority exists, not to mention that old, established pros often wield considerable personal influence at their clubs, this can be harder than elsewhere. This is partly why the u23 rule came into being in the first place.

The rule means clubs are expected to put short-term success to one side and not pick their strongest team in the interest of developing youth for the future. This is for the benefit of China’s national team – so why shouldn’t the national team itself also use the same philosophy? After all, everything in Chinese football is arranged for their benefit. Or at least that is the intention. Yet Lippi’s squad has the highest average age in the entire tournament. So what’s the point in having an u23 rule? You can only develop the players you have, even if they may not be quite as good as you hoped.

Given that China’s chances of winning this tourney are next to none, and that its older, established players have a long and miserable record of failure at national team level, China really should be focusing on youth more to break the vicious circle of players developing so late. Honestly, I really don’t think some of the better u23 players who missed out are inferior to the older more established players. There should have been more of these guys in the squad at least.

But a conservative approach rules, and a hypocritical one – CSL teams are forced to put youth ahead of short term gain, but the national team isn’t. This is symptomatic of the CFA’s top-down nature. They are fixated on the national team and measure success only by national team achievement. There is no recognition of the complexities of football, and not enough importance attached to the role that a solid league pyramid which is respected an supported properly at all levels plays in the development of the game. The obvious fact that a strong domestic league needs some level of independence and not always be subservient to the national team if it is to perform optimally is an anathema in China.

In China, its just about the national team, that’s it. Yet if the rest of the game was given more space and autonomy, the national team would ultimately benefit.

We can’t expect China to abandon all its established players and send a u23 team to the UAE. But when you have domestic league rules forcing clubs to play young players, yet your best player is 38 and your team the oldest at the tournament, something is obviously wrong. Of China’s three u23 players at this competition, they are all coming up for 24 later this year. So, they are not even young and this shows just how deeply rooted the problem is. It’s stretch to really consider these players as youths, yet they are the youngest players the team has and they all badly lack international experience.

The Asian Cup is the most important competition on the continent, and whilst I think its a great competition which deserves respect and attention, the reality is the standard is not really much higher than the CSL. In other words its a good platform for China’s younger players to get valuable experience on – especially as World Cup qualification starts in Asia later this year. Last time around, China had Wu Lei starting in Australia, then aged 23 and very much one of the key players.

Four years later, China doesn’t have any standout players under 25. In this respect we can see that the national team has, at best, not progressed at all, at worse, gone backwards.

Giving more of China’s best youth talent more opportunities on the big stage would go a long way to changing this.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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