While Europe’s top leagues generally dominate the headlines during the transfer window, the winter of 2015/16 produced one surprising exception. The main topic of conversation this time was not Spain, England or Germany but the Chinese Super League, which spent more money in the New Year than any other nation adding players such as Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez and Ramires to its ranks for around €50m, €42m and €28m respectively.
Those who believe this flurry of investment was merely a coincidence or a flash in the pan should think again. Football is growing rapidly in China PR as the country pursues its ambition of competing with the sport’s best teams. With the support of government policy, major international stars are helping to entice fans into stadiums, while there is also an ever-greater focus on youth development. Crucially, professional teams may not have more than three foreigners on the pitch at once or more than four such players on their books, and youth sides must not feature any promising youngsters from overseas.
Guangzhou Evergrande, who featured at the FIFA Club World Cup in 2013 and 2015, are a shining example of this approach. The club founded the world’s largest football academy several years ago and appointed German Marco Pezzaiuoli to oversee an organisation with more than 2,500 students and 170 coaches. The former Bundesliga and youth national team coach has been responsible for the fate of every player from U-9 level to the first team since July 2014.
“It’s like a small castle, a little city that even has its own schools,” Pezzaiuoli explained. “The youth players spend most of their time here before going home to their families at the weekends. Previously the country’s size made it all but impossible to implement the kind of packed schedules we usually recognise. Now small regional tournaments with twice the number of games are being organised."
"Competitive match practice is the players’ bread and butter,” said the 47-year-old when asked to describe his work on the 350,000-square-metre site containing 47 football pitches of various sizes. The Mannheim-born coach revealed that he frequently exchanges information with head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who asks to be kept informed about coaching education, the content of training sessions and key focus areas in both attack and defence.
The team from southern China are keen to give a good account of themselves as they prepare to travel to their first Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup, becoming only the second Chinese team to take part in this prestigious competition after Beijing Guoan, who finished eighth in 2009. “We want to be able to apply what we’ve learned at a higher level,” Pezzaiuoli said. “I hope we’ll win a game and show people that we’re a Chinese team who can play football with enjoyment and enthusiasm while at the same time providing a strong technical and tactical example of the modern game. We want people to acknowledge the good work we’re doing here in China."
“Young players have to learn, and they can only do that with overseas trips such as the Youth Cup,” he continued. “We have an opportunity to present ourselves to the world there. Steadily increasing the amount of time we’ve spent abroad over the past year has taught us a lot and given us a great deal of experience. We were at the foot of our league table when I took over the team and now that same group of players are champions, so we’ve come a long way. Every overseas trip we make is beneficial for Chinese football.”
This help is still vital, as Pezzaiuoli believes the country is still around 30 years behind Europe when it comes to experience of the beautiful game. “It starts as soon as nursery school, where there’s a lack of coordination and movement exercises with different balls,” he explained. “Up to now kindergarten pupils have been taught to march instead, but that’s a different type of movement. It takes time to introduce new structures.
"You can’t force that process; it’s simply a matter of development. I have no doubt that China will have a couple of top players in Europe’s biggest league 30 years from now, and that’s a fantastic target. We also want to take part in international competitions regularly and win one or two titles.
"Nevertheless, it’s also crucial that China remain authentic. Instead of changing every aspect of their game and copying German or Italian elite football, it’s important that they preserve their own culture while selectively incorporating other influences.”
Pezzaiuoli believes that a FIFA World Cup™ would “certainly help to push football forward in China. The stadiums are already full. People stream through the turnstiles to support their club and national team. The next step for making the game even more popular here would be a World Cup.”
While the long-term objective is to bring the world’s largest single-sport event to the Middle Kingdom, the short-term goal is to secure a spot at the FIFA World Cup for the second time. With Team Dragon currently preparing for the third round of Russia 2018 qualifying, the future is looking bright. As Pezzaiuoli concluded: “We might be at the start of our journey but the view is fantastic.”