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Chinese football needs grassroots investment not big stars on big money

Chinese football's love affair with big-name coaches continues. Soon after Marcello Lippi's return to the country last month to take charge of the long-suffering national team, Andre Villas-Boas was unveiled as the new coach of Shanghai SIPG.

Huge sums of money continue to flow into the top end of the domestic game, for foreign players and coaches alike, as the Chinese Super League (CSL) strengthens its status as the go-to destination for a final, bank-busting payday.

Much is made of the country's ambitions: to qualify for the World Cup -- something they've only done once, in 2002 -- to host the tournament and, ultimately, take the trophy back to Beijing as champions.

But while the likes of Lippi, Villas-Boas, Manuel Pellegrini, Sven-Goran Eriksson and others have been lured, doubt remains over whether this influx at inflated prices will have a positive long-term impact on football in China.

"You can hire and fire the best coaches and players in the world, but you can't hire and fire the parents or the culture you need for success," says development guru Tom Byer, who works with Beijing Guoan. "You can't buy success at national level. You can at club level.

"The reality for China is that you can bring the best coaches, but I have my doubts over whether it will be successful because the player pool is so tiny at elite level and that's where they're going wrong.

"When you see a country's under-12 age group teams and look at the gap between the best and the worst, in Japan we managed to close that gap. In China, that gap is the Pacific Ocean. What's happening is there is no player pool. I work with Beijing Guoan and they scour the country looking for players and they can't find them."

Byer knows firsthand the situation that blights Chinese football. A veteran of the east Asian region for the past three decades, the American was lured to China by the government as a result of the development work he has done in Japan since the mid-1990s. He now serves as the head technical advisor to the Chinese school football programme, put in place across the country in 2009 but given a major boost following the rise of football fan Xi Jinping to the position of president in late 2012.

Xi's status as the sport's No. 1 fan has led, indirectly, to the influx of significant sums of money into the CSL and the rapid growth of the football industry in China over the last five years.

Big businesses, in particular the property development and media sectors, view the game as a way to court the upper echelons of government, and they have been throwing their resources into the sport in an effort to be seen to be supporting Xi's desire for China to become a global superpower.

The Evergrande Group, China's second-largest property developer and the primary backers of six-time Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande, lead the way, using the club they purchased in 2010 to dominate the game at home and take Chinese football back to top of the regional game, with Guangzhou claiming the Asian Champions League title in 2013 and 2015.

The hope for all involved is an upturn in the fortunes of Chinese football, and in particular the national team, will see them rewarded for their efforts beyond the sporting spectrum. Some, though, remain unconvinced the money is being spent in the areas most required.

Marcello Lippi
Development of the youth players is key to China's hopes for the future.

"The football market in China can attract a lot of investment and big name players, this is a way of marketing Chinese football," says Li Ming, coach of China's team at the recent Asian Under-19 Championship, and a serial Chinese league winner in the 1990s with Dalian Wanda.

"But for Chinese football and for the professional game, we need to think about the future. We can't say it will only take one or two years. I hope the enthusiasm for investment will bring more people into football in China. Then we can see a lot happening in a short period of time, but we need to see a build-up of the base over a long-term period. We need to invest in pitches, coach education and develop our own style of football, a tactical style that suits Chinese players.

"The government is paying more attention to the game and there are more advisors coming in to work in the football industry. There's great potential for the creation of a football market in China. The people are lacking some thinking towards football in China. We have to think about how to invest the money in a smart way, what's the plan to effectively promote Chinese football development. That's what we should be thinking about."

Li is among those closely associated with the other strand of the ever-evolving Chinese football scene, with the 45-year-old now spending much of his time in the Netherlands, where his son trains at the academy operated by ADO Den Haag, one of a growing number of Chinese-owned clubs.

With Chinese business taking a multi-faceted approach to their involvement in the sport, there is a danger of the focus shifting from where the likes of Byer and Li believe it needs to be most concentrated.

"You can spend millions of dollars to bring all the coaches you want and nothing is going to happen," says Byer. "It's like being on an endless treadmill.

"Football starts at home. These countries that are spending millions all have their ladder on the wrong wall. It has little to do with training or coaching and all to do with culture. It's about harnessing the potential of the 100 million Chinese kids under the age of six. Football starts at home and it has to be learned at home.

"Since 1994 no Asian country has qualified for the World Cup without appearing at either the U17 or U20 World Cup and until China starts finishing in the top four in Asia in youth competitions they won't be a country capable of qualifying for the World Cup. Vietnam, Myanmar and Uzbekistan have done it in recent years, but not China.

"The reality is if Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola came as coaches they wouldn't be able to do anything because they don't have the player pool. It starts at grassroots."

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch

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