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With an average age of 29.2, Marcello Lippi's squad is the oldest in the history of the Asian Cup.   © Reuters

Chinese soccer -- the long march

Despite big investments and Xi's personal backing, tournament wins remain elusive

John Duerden | China

ABU DHABI -- Outside Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium on a pleasant Abu Dhabi evening, Chinese fans were in fine voice ahead of the game with the Philippines, the second of three group matches at the 2019 Asian Cup, the continent's quadrennial soccer championships.

"We will win today, I am sure," said Luo Ming, who came down from Dubai for the game on Jan. 11. "I will enjoy it while I can as I don't expect China to be here for too long as we are not a strong team."

Performances at the Asian Cup, held in the United Arab Emirates from Jan. 5. to Feb. 1., reflected that opinion. As expected, China defeated Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and Thailand and lost to South Korea and Iran. The team exited at the quarterfinal stage, the same stage it reached at the 2015 tournament.

This is despite the fact that the Chinese Football Association (C.F.A.) hired an elite coach in October 2016 in Marcello Lippi. Lippi led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, yet had little visible impact on China despite his high salary.

Lippi's appointment is only one move in a strategy, unveiled in 2016 by the C.F.A. calling for China to become a world soccer superpower by 2050 and a leading Asian team by 2030.

Strides had already been made since 2010 when property giant Evergrande bought Guangzhou, then a club in the second tier of Chinese soccer, and invested heavily in bringing in domestic and foreign talent. Other clubs, also backed by businesses, followed suit and in the winter transfer market of 2016, Chinese clubs spent $365 million, more than any other league in the world, and came out top again a year later, with $413 million.

This is supported by a government and President Xi Jinping, a keen soccer fan who has demonstrated his interest in past diplomatic trips, visiting clubs in England and Germany and meeting soccer stars. Ultimately he wants to see China produce champions of its own and compete on the world stage with a stronger national team.

But, as the Asian Cup, shows, this takes more time. Even a highly-regarded national team coach cannot achieve a lot if the talent is not there. Lippi, 70, did not seem to lay much of a foundation for the future either. The Italian selected the oldest roster in the history of the tournament with an average age of 29.2. He insisted that he had chosen the best possible squad.

"We looked at younger players during my time here," said Lippi in Abu Dhabi. "They need more time which is why I brought experienced players to a big tournament like this. There are good young players in China and they will show this in the future."

The question is when. "It usually takes at least 15 years to see the yield from the kind of youth training system China established early this decade," Bi Yuan, a Beijing-based soccer consultant, said. He predicts that it will be ten more years before the investment in youth development, in terms of improving facilities, coaching education and introducing soccer programs at thousands of state schools around the country, can be seen with the emergence of a consistent number of better Chinese players.

There are two more World Cups, in 2022 and 2026, within the next decade and China wants to compete in those to add to its sole appearance in 2002. This depends on the next generation of players who are already playing professionally. They are expected to get opportunities as veterans such as Zheng Zhi and Gao Lin are likely to step down before qualification for the 2022 World Cup starts later this year.

While Chinese soccer is happy to look to the long-term in developing young talent in schools and clubs around the country, once players join clubs, patience in bringing on the youngsters seems to be less common. There is concern whether young professionals will be able to develop naturally. The C.F.A.'s policy of trying to accelerate development of Under-23 players, can put it at odds with Chinese Super League clubs which have different priorities.

In 2017, the organization stipulated that league coaches had to select at least one under-23 player to start games. This resulted in some coaches, such as Shanghai SIPG's Andre Villas-Boas, substituting their youngsters off the field early in the game. The former English Premier League coach said."It will be very costly to train young players and it will not be beneficial for young players to play under too much pressure."

More controversial was the move last October that saw 55 players under 25 taken out of their clubs before the end of the 2018 Chinese Super League season to participate in a military-style 'boot camp' in Shandong Province, to improve discipline and physical fitness. Images of shaven-headed players in military fatigues undergoing what seemed to be military exercises without a soccer ball in sight were widely circulated and criticized.

Zhou Jinhui, Chairman of leading CSL club Beijing Guoan, was unhappy. "The reason why Chinese soccer has not improved is because of its management," Zhou said at the time. "The only way to change that is to change the management methods and to respect the natural law of soccer development."

Bi believes that most in Chinese soccer agree with Zhou. "In general there are more people criticizing these rules than supporting them," Bi said. "Critics claim that professional league clubs should not have to take the requirements from the national team into account and that young players will not benefit anyway."

Few would argue against the long-term plan to get more children and teenagers playing soccer in good facilities and under the gaze of knowledgeable coaches. However, if the Chinese national team is to improve then perhaps more thought should be given to what happens once the best players start playing professionally. There is still a big gap between youthful promise and the World Cup final.

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