Shanghai. China’s head of state is dreaming of winning the football World Cup. Whilst the road is long, it is not totally without hope. There is enough talent amongst the 1.4 billion population and the country’s professional clubs are beginning to sift talented players at early age. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) is being supported by Continental which announced a four-year cooperation with the CFA at the end of September.
When China’s State President Xi Jinping philosophises publicly about the “Chinese Dream”, he is not talking about football but the identity and future of the nation. The President’s personal dream though is all about football and very specific – namely to win the World Cup. It sounds audacious especially as the People’s Republic of China has only ever qualified once for the finals. It came back in 2002 when three matches produced three defeats and no goals. Those however prophesising 30 years ago that China would today have the world’s second biggest national economy would have been met with the same incredulity as Xi Jinping is being met today by the majority of the world’s football pundits. How realistic is it that the country will win football’s biggest prize?
There is definitely potential in the new national coach’s current squad. Having been in charge at Olympique Marseille und Olympique Lyon, Frenchman Alain Perrin took up the post in February and is counting on the youngsters to move China forwards. He immediately gathered a group of 50 candidates for a place in the national squad and none was older than 29. Perrin is consciously targeting his team selection for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The intention is for the coming year’s Asian Championship in Australia to provide an important building block in the side’s progress. Perrin is prepared to take the risk that he and his bunch of inexperienced youngsters will suffer an early exit. Repeating the success of 2004 when the Chinese reached the final of the continental championship for the first and last time (1-3 against Japan) will be tough.
One of the cornerstones in Perrin’s planning is defender Zhang Linpeng. He is the charismatic captain who many feel is capable of embarking upon a career in Europe. Together with his club Guangzhou Evergrande, Zhang has dominated the Chinese Super League for the past three year and is marching indomitably towards his fourth championship title in succession. In 2013, he even won the Asian Champions League along with the former Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios. But Zhang is not only a resolute defender he is also forthright when appearing in public.
He recently revealed behind closed doors information from the national team when criticising the fact that the team had to spend three hours in a meeting room on the day of the Asian Championship qualifying match against Saudi Arabia which ended in a goalless draw. Numerous officials addressed the team and some hadn’t even talked about football. Zhang felt it was “complicated and unprofessional” to prepare for an international match in such circumstances.
Few others in the team would have dared to have used such strong words. The only other player enjoying anything near to the same status as Zhang is striker Wu Lei. Having scored ten goals for Shanghai FC, he is the highest scorer in the current CSL season. He made his professional debut in the second division when only 14 and has been nicknamed “China’s Maradona”. Aged 18, he won his first cap for the Chinese senior team but has not yet been able to make the step up to the world’s top leagues. However there is some speculation that he will move to a Scandinavian team to tune him up for the English Premier League.
China’s road to a becoming world champions is going to be a long one but it is not impossible especially as the country loves its football like no other Asian state. Additionally, the nation with a population of almost 1.4 billion has enough talent to produce world class players. Players with potential however have to be discovered and then appropriately schooled. But it is right here that they have their deficits. Youngsters like to play basketball because countryman Yao Ming has been causing a furore in the NBA for a number of years now. Even in the remotest corners of the country, the district councils have built outdoor courts to satisfy the demand generated by Yao’s fame. Football pitches are however rare.
The successful Swedish coach Sven-Göran Eriksson, who worked for a while in China, sees it as being one of the major problems. Too many youngsters also started playing the game at far too late a stage. But improvements are in sight. More and more first division clubs are setting up private academies to address the situation. The clubs are pinning their hopes on co-operations with top European clubs but the system is young and has not produced any talented players for the national team to date. However things will surely change when the clubs set their minds on carrying their concept through. There is a big demand for places in the camps and it is growing all the time. Several thousand children have already been sifted and all this is beyond the normal state search for youngsters with potential. Perhaps the boys that will turn the dreaming head of state into a prophet have already been uncovered.
Jay Dhillon, General Manager Continental Tires Trading (Shanghai) Co. Ltd, explained the reasons behind the decision at the ceremonial signing of the agreement with China’s football association: "“This is the first time that Continental has invested in national teams in the Asia Pacific region. Such large scale and deep cooperation leave an indelible mark on Continental Tires’ football sponsorship history. This collaboration is another important football related marketing initiative for Continental Tires beside the sponsorship of the 2015 AFC Asian CupTM which takes place in Australia in January and underlines both Continental’s passion for football as well as our long-term commitment to extend our presence especially in the Chinese market.”