A FEW years back, Stockport County received a delegation of Chinese businessmen interested in investing in English football. This unlikely alliance resulted in a club in China being named after the “the hatters”, Stockport Tiger Star, based in Shanyang.
It was a taste of things to come as China is now buying into English and European football in a big way. The recent transfer market activity involving Chinese clubs was firm evidence that there is something of a paradigm shift going on in the game.
The figures we are talking about are huge, the calibre of player being snapped up by the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande and other Chinese Super League clubs high. The only Brit playing his trade in China actually has non-league roots – Jack Sealy, the son of ex-QPR forward Tony, who played for Bristol Manor Farm, among other clubs.
China is desperate for credibility in the football world. The country’s President Xi Jinping is a mad-keen fan and he’s been encouraging big business in China to back the growth of the game. China’s ambition is to host, and eventually win, the World Cup – a bold dream given the current status of the Chinese national team.
In order to realise its objectives, China knows that it cannot just keep taking hired guns to the far east, it has to also develop the game at grassroots level. Some of the big companies throwing their support behind the game’s evolution are sponsoring clubs across Europe on the condition they help Chinese youngster nurture their skills. And only last year, UK Chancellor George Osborne committed £3 million to a Premier League scheme to train the next generation of footballers in China – which seems a somewhat controversial diplomatic gesture given the economic clout of the second biggest economy in the world.
There are around 400,000 Chinese people living in the UK, with approximately 125,000 in London, 14,000 in Manchester, 13,000 in Birmingham and 8,000 in Liverpool. In 2014, new Chinese migrants to Britain numbered some 40,000. It’s a sizeable figure that’s also boosted by the huge influx of Chinese students in the UK.
But there’s been a big lack of Chinese-born or Chinese extract players in the UK. Sammy Chung of Wolves and Frank Soo of Stoke City (and England) both had a Chinese father and English mother, but even as globalisation takes root and more Chinese young people travel across Europe, there’s little sign of any coming through as credible footballers.
That could change, though, and non-league could be a beneficiary. The Premier League is currently working with 500,000 young Chinese players, which has attracted some criticism given the decline in England’s own status in international football. Moreover, Stoke City has linked up with Staffordshire University to host a soccer school for young Chinese hopefuls.
But where will all these players go, how will they develop their game? The prospects of success at the highest level are more remote than the people running these schemes will probably care to admit. Furthermore, with China keen to build-up from the bottom, they could do worse than look at the non-league game for some pointers. It won’t win the World Cup by 2050 (the latest target set by the government), but it will help build a greater cultural understanding of what’s needed. By engaging the non-league world to help bring on young Chinese players, perhaps some of the vast sums of cash sloshing around the game could be directed in a different direction?
With many non-league clubs running special “days” where they reach out to various segments of the community, perhaps some clubs – in areas with recognisably large ethnic populations – should look to the Chinese as a new source of playing resources? Harnessing Asian talent has always been difficult, but it is starting to happen and it is more prevalent at non-league level than in the upper levels of the game. But how often do you see a Chinese supporter, let alone a player?
China’s young people love football, they have incredible enthusiasm and their country is in the ascendancy, despite its recent economic slowdown. Between 2000 and 2014, China invested some EUR 12.2bn in the UK, the highest among the European Union members. They may be short of domestic football talent, but there’s clearly no shortage of liquidity. As part of the country’s insatiable appetite for western football, perhaps some of that money could benefit the game further down the food chain?