WEF is proud to host Tom Lewis as columnist. A TV producer with ties to Chinese football since professionalization in the 90s, mandarin-speaker Tom is a long-standing observer of the Chinese game with intimate knowledge of its inner workings. He’s also a former Chinese football statistician for global football stats site RSSSF.com.
From the first englishmen in Chinese football to decline
I made a film about Chinese football once. I was producing a series of live broadcasts for Star TV Hong Kong in the very first professional season in 1994 and, as we had a bit of time on our hands, we came up with a long form idea for Channel 4 back in London.
We followed the lives of three English journeyman pros who were turning out for Guangdong Hongyuan; Craig Allardyce, Murray Jones and Darren Tilley.
The film was well received although, as Channel 4 prided themselves on being “alternative” and therefore scheduled it against a live FA Cup semi-final, there weren’t many viewers.
The story followed the players’ ups and downs over the course of their time in China; their arrival and excitement at experiencing a new culture, and then their isolation, which grew stronger over the course of their time in Guangzhou. Don’t forget this was pre-internet so the only communication with home was an occasional expensive phone call. Murray in particular missed his family badly.
Craig, who was still a teenager, got banned after brawling with national team centre-forward Hao Haidong and had to return to England. We picked up his story again in Blackpool where his father was manager (yes, that Allardyce). Murray also headed home after scoring the winner against Shanghai Shenhua and we finished our tale with him settling into life with Farnborough, a fifth-tier club.
Looking back at the film recently, apart from it being a happy memory of time spent with good people, I was struck by Murray’s final summary. He was astonished by how skilful and talented his teammates were, and how much he’d learned from them. Granted, our three protagonists never reached the top back in the UK but they weren’t the only ones impressed with the quality of some of the players in the mid-nineties Jia A.
We filmed eleven live matches over the second half of that season, and twelve the next, and we thought we’d seen a number of players who, given the opportunity, might make their mark in Europe.
Fast forward 25 years to last season. In between volleyball jobs, I managed to catch a top-of-the-table clash in Shanghai; SIPG against Evergrande. Both clubs have access to incredible financial resources and, instead of Allardyce, Jones and Tilley from the English lower leagues, I now saw Paulinho, Hulk and Oscar.
Maybe a dozen Chinese internationals were also out on the field. Yet my abiding memory of the game (2-0 to Evergrande, both scored by Paulinho) is that the foreigners were so much better than most of their teammates. It was reminiscent of the story told of the Middlesbrough team circa 1996; Juninho and ten blokes who’d won a raffle to play alongside him. That comparison may be unfair to some of the locals but, in all honesty, there’s not a single one I could see interesting any foreign club of the slightest stature.
1994 and early success
Let’s go back to 1994. Shenhua featured Fan Zhiyi, for my money the most talented Chinese footballer of all-time. When he was finally allowed abroad in 1998 he was past his considerable best but still became a cult hero wherever he played, especially at Crystal Palace.
There were plenty of others who featured in the Jia A days and then tried their luck abroad. Yang Chen carved out a pretty decent career in Germany, as did, a little later, Xie Hui and Shao Jiayi. Zheng Zhi impressed in a brief spell at Charlton. Others went abroad but, for whatever reason, didn’t settle; Zhang Enhua in England and Ma Mingyu at Perugia.
In the late nineties the Chinese national team was as good as it’s ever been (world number 37 in 1998) so perhaps it is unsurprising people took an interest in their players. When I was filming with the World Cup squad in Korea in 2002, the Everton manager David Moyes turned up to a training session to take a look at the talent on offer.
A new sponsorship deal involved his club taking two players on loan and, after not too much thought, they chose Li Tie and Li Weifeng. Moyes hadn’t expected much and, indeed, Li Weifeng never really had a chance to establish himself at a club already replete with centre-backs. Li Tie was a different matter.
Despite scepticism when he arrived, Moyes was greatly impressed by what he saw and the defensive midfielder soon became one of the first names on the team sheet. Once the loan period was over, Everton gladly parted with over a million pounds to secure his signature but, sadly, Li Tie’s career was wrecked by injury and he was never able to fulfil that incredible early promise.
Li Tie’s entry into Jia A was delayed for a few years as he had been part of the sort of football experiment only China could have come up with. In 1993, he and fifteen other promising players were packed off to Brazil as part of the Jianlibao youth team, the idea presumably being that constant training drills and the atmosphere of South America would force their talent to blossom.
Of course they all missed out on vital match experience which is probably why so few of the sixteen ever carved out decent careers. Fortunately, though, that generation produced more than just the Boys from Brazil. One player of that age group who wasn’t chosen, and who consequently made his Jia A debut aged 17, was Sun Jihai.
Sun probably had the most successful career of any Chinese export. He joined Crystal Palace alongside Fan Zhiyi, recommended by Ted Buxton, who’d been a coaching assistant with the national team in 1997 and was a close associate of Terry Venables, the Palace manager.
He was still only 21 and, while Fan was attracting most of the attention, Sun had brought his mother to London to help him settle. I recall interviewing them after their arrival and interrupting an impromptu game of badminton they were playing in the hallway.
Sun didn’t last too long in London as he was recalled to Dalian from his loan, but he was now a known quantity among English football aficionados.
In 2002, Manchester City shelled out two million pounds and, over the next six seasons, he became a fixture in their Premier League squad. What is sad is that, since he left, Korean and Japanese players have become fairly common in the major European leagues, but it’s a little hard to imagine the next Sun Jihai.
So why has a nation which produced a competitive national team with players that attracted interest from around the world become, well, what we see before us today?
An also-ran in international terms, China has been forced into a move which really shouldn’t be considered by any halfway ambitious football power; handing out passports to any decent uncapped foreign player who has hung around the CSL for a few seasons.
I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim any of my observations are correct or even necessarily valid. They’re just my own thoughts from having followed Chinese football for four decades.
The footballers I dealt with in the mid-Nineties seemed to be at the beginning of a big adventure. They were not exactly well paid but one did get the impression that the new set-up gave opportunities for improvement. Nowadays I’m less sure.
Players collect huge wages for ordinary performances and, with far too many, there seems little incentive. Wages are so enormous that Wu Lei, the best of the current crop, is having part of his salary picked up by a sponsor.
At least he has had the gumption to go abroad, but the fact that he is a semi-regular starter with a club that will, coronavirus notwithstanding, be starting next season in the second tier, might give a true indication as to his level.
One Child Policy
In 2013, I interviewed Fan Zhiyi about his career and his plans. He’d been asked to take charge of Shanghai’s Under 18 team for the upcoming National Games, a job he rightly saw has an honour. That was until he saw the resources available to him.
“In the whole city there were just fifty boys playing at an elite level. Just fifty in the whole of Shanghai.” One of the unintended consequences of the One Child Policy was a significant reduction in the number of youngsters playing sport.
Perhaps some parents were less keen for their child to waste their time in such a way but, whatever the reason, fewer children then meant fewer top rank sportspeople now.
The obvious illustration is with the women’s game; vying with USA as the world’s best team at the turn of the century and then, with significantly fewer girls taking up the sport, standards simply fell off a cliff.
Asian champions seven times in a row between 1986 and 1999, they have won just one of the last seven tournaments and not reached the final since 2008.
Elite sports model
There are some superb sports facilities for children around China. Elite sportspeople are selected from a very early age and hot housed.
It’s not quite the case that children are told what they must do, but they are moved towards sports judged suitable for their physique and these are frequently disciplines where emphasis is placed on coaching and repetition (think gymnastics, diving and table tennis).
Football, a team sport which puts a premium on at least some players adapting themselves to match conditions, does not offer the same risk/reward balance for those in charge. It is they, after all, who must produce results.
What this also means is that, especially after the Millennium when the search was on for potential medalists for Beijing 2008, the most athletic children are not necessarily pushed towards football.
By way of contrast, look at Europe. Just about every child gets the opportunity to play football and those who reach the top are also frequently the very best physical specimens. In China, those special ones are often encouraged to take another path.
Would you encourage your child to play a sport with all the dodgy connotations of football in China? The reputation of the sport has taken such a hit over the last couple of decades that many football fans seem more eager to follow clubs from abroad. It’s far easier to encourage children to participate if the local club is a source of pride
I’m not sure there is an easy fix. I’d be delighted to see China actually qualify for the World Cup again as opposed to the more likely route to the Finals, which is to act as host in 2030 or 2034. Maybe there are a couple of vague rays of hope on the horizon
In most countries, children start playing football by joining a local team, which may simply be something run by enthusiastic parents in the local park. Given the pressure on space in Chinese urban areas this isn’t really practical.
But it is noticeable that, since the presence of a real football fan at the political summit, some superb facilities have sprung up in some of the major cities.
Whether these can genuinely create a conveyor belt of young stars is a moot point, but the more kids drawn to the game mean more chances of uncovering that diamond.
Back in 1994, I was handed a series of squad lists for the upcoming season; names, numbers, age, height and place of birth. Almost everybody came from the city in which their team was based but there was one notable exception.
Li Bing, star striker for Liaoning and China, was born in Guiyang. He’d been promoted to the Guizhou youth team at the age of fifteen but that province had no infrastructure within which to develop his talent so he was sent to the north-east.
His presence at the very top level of the sport indicated that it was possible for someone of his background to get that far, but also emphasised quite how unusual it was.
Football in China has always been for a select few big cities. Not many footballers come from rural backgrounds, not many come from ethnic minorities (with the exception of the Koreans of Yanbian). But the last decade has seen a bit of a change.
Think of the number of Uyghur professionals, one of them now in the national team. There are Tibetans playing in the third tier. Smaller cities like Nantong and Meizhou have clubs at a high level.
The more clubs, the more opportunities to be a professional. The bigger the pool of professionals, the greater the likelihood of talented youngsters choosing to make a career of the sport.
It’s not much, I know. I realise that, despite government edicts, China isn’t likely to produce a world-beating national team in my lifetime. But it would be good to feel that, just for once, their plans were not wholly in vain.
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