Grassroots Football in China: Quality Lacking
   2013-04-10 10:30:52    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Yang Yang

Chinese football is in crisis. The professional leagues have been decimated by match-fixing scandals, and prominent officials and players have been rumbled for their part in the illegal activities. Meanwhile, with this as a backdrop, high profile foreign coaches and players have been brought to the Chinese Super League as part of a push to promote individual teams and the league as a whole. In turn, many such players have departed the league soon after arriving. With so much going on at the upper levels of Chinese football, many might be forgiven for forgetting that there is a pressing need for further development at the grassroots level.

There are efforts already ongoing across the country, with the most high profile being the China School Football Program, a joint initiative by the Education Ministry and the Sports Ministry in conjunction with the Chinese Football Association (CFA), which aims to introduce children to football as part of their school curriculum. The major difficulty in implementing programs such as these, however, is that China is short of seasoned coaches who are able to deliver the information and skills which young children need whilst maintaining their interest in the game.

Terry Singh, an English FA Grassroots coach, has been in China since 2004 working with youngsters in various cities helping them to develop their basic football and coaching skills. Singh is currently imparting his knowledge to students at one of China's most prestigious sporting schools in the country, Beijing Sports University; providing coaching instruction on and off the pitch. CRIEnglish spoke to Terry Singh about the state of grassroots development in general and some of the problems facing its development going forward.

Singh's continual message on the topic of grassroots football focused on its long-term nature. Having witnessed the state of youth coaching within the community of Beijing and other cities, Singh told CRIEnglish that initiatives such as the China School Football Program are good for Chinese football but was wary about whether this would be enough. "We're looking at long-term development in grassroots football. In grassroots football in China, it has to be organic," Singh said; stressing that individual professional clubs have a responsibility to reach out and get involved at the community level.

Furthermore, Singh highlighted the lack of quality coaches as one of the major reasons as to why China has yet to show its true potential on the pitch, both nationally and domestically. "In China, there are some clubs that do have youth academies. But that's not enough. You need to have more. The reason is quality. If there are not enough quality coaches, you will not get quality players to progress into the first team. It's very important that clubs realize that. If they want to develop their club from the top tier to the bottom, they need to process in many different ways to develop the team."
Singh, like many others, also believes that the recent transfer activity occurring in the Chinese Super League, which has led to far more foreign players entering the league, is a good thing but is based purely upon short-term, commercial expectations, adding that, the aim is "to get good players from Europe. Pay a lot of money and the fans come in; it's short term based. These professional players coming from England or Europe, they're coming into retirement. They come in for an experience and then they go back. That does nothing for the future of the game. Professional clubs who have a lot of money should tap into the communities and education is the most important part." Singh's comments tie in with those of former NBA star Yao Ming who recently shared his belief at the government's two sessions that sport must be put back into the Chinese curriculum and should not only be seen as a way by which to gain glory for the nation.

When it comes to dealing with the issue of quality coaches and innovative coaching methods, Singh believes that the solution is simple. "The CFA, schools and clubs, who have the passion for football, [should] cooperate with clubs from overseas and then they can build links and invite coaches to become teachers and coach them and improve their game." This is something Singh has first-hand experience of, having been part of the first China National Middle School Football Team German tour, which saw coaches and scouts from Hertha Berlin visit China to assess the skill level of the young Chinese players involved in the program.

However, Singh stressed that quality does exist in China; but noted that a country as vast as China simply requires more of it. "There are some really good coaches here in China, don't get me wrong," Singh was keen to point out, "But they're very hard to find. Just like there's a lot of good talent, raw talent in China. But we lose them when they become teenagers because nobody can nurture them to go further."

Unfortunately, the image of Chinese football has not been helped by the long-running match-fixing scandal, which has seen a number of top officials and players punished for their involvement. When asked whether this negative image of the game would deter some parents from letting their children play football in the future, Singh seemed upbeat, stating, "It all depends on the coach. The coach will go out and coach that child, and if he's happy that's good; the parents are happy. But it does send a negative vibe in the community. When I first arrived here in 2004, I remember saying to my colleague, 'Tell me more about the national game.' He said, 'No, we don't talk about it because there's a lot of match fixing.'

As for the other major news dominating the headlines in Chinese football, namely the appointment of David Beckham as CSL ambassador, Singh believes that any high profile name coming to China, in any form, is good for the sport. "But remember," Singh replied, "we're looking at the commercial side here." And once again, in maintaining his firm belief that these types of developments only have so much impact upon the game, Singh signed off by stating that in order for the state of football to truly progress over the coming decades, "Everything has to start from the community, from education, from the grassroots." 

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