Here's how China could become the next footballing superpower
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The Chinese Super League has caught the attention of football fans across the world, with many teams in the league spending mind-bogglingly large sums of money to attract big-name players to the Middle Kingdom.
Four of the ten highest-paid players on the planet ply their trade in China, with Carlos Tevez, now of Shanghai Shenhua FC, heading this list with his wages estimated to be in excess of £600,000 per week.
It is perhaps easy for observers in more established footballing nations to consider such remarkable transfer activity as unsustainable, and to dismiss the Chinese Super League as a flash in the pan which will soon fade back into obscurity. However, this is part of a long-term vision formulated by the country’s president Xi Jinping, who is well aware of the benefits of football in terms of soft power.
By 2050, Xi wishes to see China achieve three football-related targets. First of all, he wants the national team to qualify for the World Cup. Secondly, he wants the tournament to be hosted in China, and thirdly, he dreams that one day, China will be crowned world champions.
In the short-term, the Chinese government want to raise the profile of the domestic league. Football has long been popular in the country, but it is European clubs who have traditionally commanded the affections of the Chinese people.
Given that China is yet to produce a major footballing star, club owners (who often have a close relationship with the government) have resorted to importing high-profile players from abroad to attract crowds and inspire the next generation of Chinese footballers. This tactic already seems to be working. Attendances in China are on the rise; in the 2014 season, the average attendance per game in the CSL was just under 19,000, yet this figure increased to over 24,000 by 2016, surpassing even Italy’s Serie A.
There is also a massive drive to improve grassroots football in the country. Football is now a compulsory part of the national curriculum, meaning that hundreds of millions of schoolchildren will grow up with an exposure to the game.
Furthermore, by 2020, the Chinese Football Association hope to have 50 million people playing football, 20,000 training centres and at least 70,000 football pitches. Perhaps most famous of these training centres hoping to produce future football stars is Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC’s $185 million state-of-the art football academy, claimed to be the largest of its type anywhere in the world.
Crucially, such academies often combine football with academic study, with scholarships available to the most talented youngsters. In Chinese culture, parents are often unwilling to support children in pursuing their dreams if it means that their education may be compromised, yet with the prospect of a free or discounted education, there has never been more of an incentive for Chinese parents to encourage their children towards footballing excellence.
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