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China: another planet in the world of football

Football is on the rise in China, with more and more players coming from Europe to join the Chinese Super League. But is China really developing its national football? Or does investment stop at buying up international talent? José Bourbon spoke to Ricardo Figueiredo – a young Portuguese coach currently working at the Winning League Figo Football Academy, in China – to get a insight into the challenges and progression of Chinese football

Between 2014 and 2016 no country spent more on football than China. In total, the country invested around €2.150 million, seven times more than USA, the second biggest investor across the globe. Chinese businessmen have already invested in Inter Milan, AC Milan, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, for example.

Domestically, the Chinese Super League has also spent big. In 2016, players such as Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Gervinho and Fredy Guarin became the first batch of big names to defect from European football. Carlos Tevez followed at the end of the year, becoming the highest paid player in the world. Last season Brazilians Oscar, Hulk and Alexandre Pato all made the move, along with Axel Witsel and Graziano Pellé.

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It is true that all of these players bring quality to China, but is also difficult to deny the imbalance created between them and the rest of the players of the league. Tevez recently showed his doubts about the potential and capacity of the Super League to increase the quality of Chinese national players. He told SFR Sport, a French television station, that:

“Technically they are not very good. And I don’t think they are going to get to the same heights, not even in 50 years. In South America and Europe, players learn to play football when they’re kids, but not here.”

Ricardo Figueiredo, a Portuguese coach in China

To try to get a better understanding of the level that the Chinese Super League and club academies are at right now, and the challenges that China will face in the future, Sports Gazette talked with Ricardo Figueiredo, a Portuguese coach who is currently working in China, at the Winning League Figo Football Academy.

Can the Chinese League one day gain a global audience?

“I don’t see China consuming this market, however Chinese football has a big potency in Asian football. For instance, Luis Felipe Scolari’s team [Guangzhou Evergrande – who won their seventh consecutive league title last Sunday] won the equivalent competition to the Champions League, in Asia [the AFC Champions League]. If we consider the number of Chinese people – around 1.379 billion – I think they don’t need European countries to start to ‘consume’ this market. The Chinese market is more than enough to turn profit”.

What are the main barriers and differences that an European faces in China?

“The biggest barrier is communication because almost nobody speaks English… and the lack of professionalism also doesn’t help. Furthermore, as China is a communist country, they are afraid of discussion and they are not used to confronting ideas. If they think they are right, anything you can say to them is not going to have any result or change.”

But there is also another difference, anchored in the lack of sports culture: 

“Children don’t watch football and that doesn’t help the process. On other hand, their business concept is a bit different from ours, and this can cause some discussion.”

Tevez, Hulk and Oscar are important to increasing the quality of the Super League, but they are not going to solve national team problems

The Chinese Super League is, unsurprisingly, below the majority of the top quality leagues in Europe (England, France, Italy, Spain and Germany):

“The quantity of players with quality is lower when compared with Europe, which makes the game slower. I also think they should invest more in goalkeepers because they make a lot of mistakes,” Figueiredo says.

About the arrival in the last couple of years of players like Óscar, Lavezzi, Hulk, Jackson Martinez, Axel Witsel, Alexandro Pato and Ramires, Figueiredo assures that it is not going to increase national team quality:

“Of course it is important for the development of the sport in the country, however it’s not going to be worthy if there isn’t an investment to develop youth football.”

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Sooner or later, the old question arose: when arriving in a new country, who has to adapt: players or coach?

“Coach. The coach always has to adapt to the context he is in, although he shouldn’t change his principles and teaching methods, if he considers them superior.”

Another factor in Ricardo Figueiredo’s decision to leave Portugal and go to China, in 2016 was the financial factor:

“The financial point was a big factor. However, having the opportunity to try a new and different culture also motivated me to come, as well as a new country… in this case almost a continent.”

And maybe that is exactly what will make him better at his job:

“Perhaps the experience of living in a completely different culture will help me in the future to adapt more easily to new leagues, where I possibly can work.”

Featured Image: James Tunningley
José Bourbon
José Bourbon was born in Lisbon, Portugal. He completed his first degree in Social and Cultural Communication at Universidade Católica Portuguesa, in Lisbon. In the summer of 2015 he had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best journalists in Portugal during an internship at Expresso, one of the famoust newspapers in Portugal. He also played a part in the creation of BETup – an entrepreneurship news website that he worked on for six months. José currently writes for Winept, a Portuguese website dedicated to wine, but sports journalism is his main passion, specifically tennis and football. It goes without saying, José is also a Sporting and Portugal fan.
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