GUANGZHOU: When Kin Chai was a boy in 1990s China, his rural school had no football team. Or pitch. Or even a ball. Instead, the children kicked an empty plastic jug around in the street.
“It was a small village,” he said, “not that developed… we tried to put together village competitions, but the school didn’t have the resources.”
Fast-forward 20 years and China is in the midst of a national football boom, investing billions of dollars in an effort to realize President Xi Jinping’s dreams of hosting, and one day winning, the World Cup.
China, long an avid consumer of foreign football such as the English Premier League, is now attracting expensive talent to its domestic competition and has plans to build thousands of academies to create a new generation of players.
But it is finding there is one thing money cannot buy: a love of playing the game, the simple ingredient that many experts see as critical for creating elite performers.
Kin is now one of a small group of people working to inspire that enthusiasm in Chinese children, who are often too busy studying to play sport.
With a university degree in physical education, the 27-year-old coaches for Dreams Come True, a not-for-profit organization trying to build a national network of after-school soccer programs aimed at encouraging kids’ passion for the sport.
“We’re giving students a little training in their spare time,” said its chairman Zhou Weihao.
The main goal of the program, based in the teeming southern metropolis of Guangzhou, is to keep children active and make them “useful to society”, he said. If they show talent, “then we give them more training”.
This relaxed approach is unusual for China, and contrasts sharply with the industrial-style efforts of real estate behemoth Evergrande, the majority owner of Guangzhou Evergrande, the current Asian and Chinese champions.
It has built a football academy in conjunction with Spanish giants Real Madrid, reputedly the biggest in the world, where more than 2,000 students train for hours every day in the hope of making it as professionals.
The facility, which boasts a huge replica World Cup trophy, mirrors the communist state’s notoriously intensive sports development machine, which has helped turn China into an Olympic titan while its football teams lag far behind.
But Mark Dreyer, a sports analyst in Beijing, warned: “The methods that China has used to great effect to become dominant in other sports cannot be transferred to football.”
“Simply forcing kids to play against their will won’t solve anything,” he said, adding that a “total overhaul of its grassroots system” and a “proper footballing pyramid” were crucial.
The Evergrande academy’s size and ambition show how the cash-rich corporations which bankroll Chinese teams are spending big to achieve Xi’s goal of soccer supremacy.
Business tycoons openly acknowledge that their footballing investments are an opportunity to gain political favour, after China’s leaders made it clear that the sport was a priority.
Last year, Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group bought a 20 percent stake in Spain’s Atletico Madrid, and in March it signed a sponsorship deal with FIFA, football’s troubled world body.
In a recent book, Wang wrote: “The government leaders care about it very much, and the Chinese administration of sports made several appeals, so I came back and am offering support for Chinese football.”
China’s soccer skills have long lagged behind other indicators of national power: FIFA ranks China a lowly 81st, their only World Cup appearance was in 2002, and in March they needed a big dose of luck to reach the final round of qualifying for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
The government’s top economic planning body last month outlined a development plan to make the world’s most populous nation a global football leader by 2050.
Within the next four years, it said, China will have 20,000 soccer academies and 30 million elementary and middle school pupils playing the sport, among more than 50 million Chinese active in the game.
‘The Chinese dream’
But specialists say China has cultural issues — including a high-pressure university entrance examination or “gaokao” — that will make it hard to grow a mass youth football craze.
The educational system “leaves very little space or time for sports”, said Mary Gallagher, of the University of Michigan. “Will parents risk points on the gaokao for the chance to play soccer every day?”
Chinese media editorials and articles have called for a “grassroots” revolution in the sport, but until now there have been few green shoots.
Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, now coaching Shanghai SIPG in the Chinese Super League, has complained that football participation is almost non-existent in the country.
“That is a pity because young people — boys, girls — they play badminton, they play ping-pong, they play basketball,” he told Agence France-Presse in an interview last year.
But a mother watching her son show off his ball skills at a Dreams Come True session said the organization’s low-key approach had fed his passion for the game.
“He doesn’t watch TV. He doesn’t read comics. All he thinks about is soccer,” she said.
“Raising his level of play is his dream. It’s our dream.” She paused, then smiled: “It’s the Chinese dream.”