The past week at Shandong Luneng Taishan Football School for the FUSC (Federation of University Sports of China) Girls Football Team Final has opened my eyes to another facet of Football Development in China. Shandong Luneng Football Club were formed in 1998 and a year later the club established Taishan Football School to develop the most talented youth footballers in Shandong. The age groups at the Football School are from Under 8s to Under 21s and the players compete in regular tournaments against Asian and European Football Clubs. To date, Taishan Football School has produced over 149 footballers for the Chinese National Team across various levels and produced even more footballers who are competing in the Chinese Super League. The facilities at Taishan Football School are akin to those at St. George’s Park in Burton-Upon-Trent. Over a dozen modern 3G and Grass Pitches, pictures of legendary footballers and Chinese Football Players, a state of the art gym, a rehabilitation centre and accommodation for players, coaches and referees. The school is in Weifang City (central Shandong province), and is rooted in between the Weifang Airport and Down Town. Weifang City is East of China and is much less developed than Ningbo and certainly is a lot colder! Weifang, just like Ningbo is a small city but “all the people are happy”, as a taxi driver mentioned on our drive to Down Town.
This week was more relaxed than Week 1 and involved observing coaches across different teams and age groups. Following on Phase 1 of Premier Skills last week, it has been interesting to observe how local Chinese football coaches operate on the ground. A lot of traditional methods (static stretching and jogging around the park) are still favoured by coaches but the girls are technically competent and able to beat a player or two! It was interesting to see doses of the Chinese culture that is embedded in Grassroots Football. From one of the sessions that I observed, the coach informed me that when a player plays for both teams in a training activity, the player is the “Joker” as opposed to what we call the “Magic Man” in England. In matches, the players left on the field at the end of the game assemble in a straight line and shakes hands with the referees and opposing team. Then, the players hold hands and run to the opposing team bench where they bow together and shout Xiexie Ni (Thank You). Hold hand to chest, flick out palm or back hand. My favourite moment was being invited unexpectedly to pass on technical information to Shandong Jinan Shanghe Sun JI Zhen Centre Primary School the day before their Final. The team were practising penalties and I was observing the players technique, which varied from bottom corner strikes to balls flying over the fence. I stepped in to show the girls to get their body over the ball as a lot of the girls were leaning back and to follow through with their strike. I slotted a penalty shot in the bottom corner with venom (without a GK for safeguarding reasons) to which the girls were in awe. I went from a coach-centred approach to a player-centred approach and asked one of the players to demonstrate in front of her teammates. At first, she was shocked that I called out, but after scoring she had an awesome smile on her face. Shandong Jinan narrowly lost 1-0 and were Runners Up of the Tournament! They received a medal each and a plaque for their second-place position. The coach invited me for a Team Photo and later thanked me on WeChat for providing his team with technical information!
Over the duration of the tournament, I had some very interesting conversations with local and overseas football coaches about the challenges pertaining to Football Development in China. Most children in China have their first experience of football in primary school. However, the opportunity to play for a grassroots club or play at academy level is virtually non-existent. Other than Shandong Luneng FC and 2015/16 CSL winners Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC, the other 14 CSL Clubs have no academy or football school for talented players, which creates a difficult transition for young males and females who aspire to play the game at the elite level. In addition to limited opportunities to compete outside of school, a typical day for a High School Student is often from 7.30am to 10pm. An average day involves classes from 8am-12pm; two-hour lunch break from 12pm; classes from 2pm-5pm; dinner from 5pm-7pm and additional classes or homework from 7pm onwards. So where do students have the time to play the game outside of school? It’ll be very intriguing to see the next steps for Women’s Football in China from the Grassroots to the Elite Level. Despite President Xi Jinping aiming to win the FIFA Men’s World Cup by 2050, The Chinese Women’s National Team has yielded greater success than the Men’s National Team, who failed to qualify for the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Women’s National Team are currently ranked 14th in the FIFA World Rankings and reached the Quarter Finals of the Rio 2016 Olympic Women’s Football Tournament and the Canada 2015 FIFA World Cup. Will President Xi Jinping change his masterplan and put more financial investment into the Women’s game? Only time will tell.