SHANGHAI: He is known as the “Godfather of Shanghainese football”, is a former player and manager of the Chinese national team, and owns a side in the Spanish league.
Now, at the age of 73, the charismatic Xu Genbao is taking on his toughest assignment yet: forming a club from scratch to help China finally become a competitive force in world football.
Some of the biggest names in Chinese football, including international winger Wu Lei, were at the recent launch of the new Chongming Genbao Football Club.
Wu was once dubbed “China’s Maradona” by Xu, the man who discovered him and many others now playing in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
“You are always telling me to retire and to be honest, I really want to,” Xu, sporting his trademark dark glasses, told journalists at the launch at a stately hotel in Shanghai.
But Xu looks nowhere near as old as his years—he turns 74 in January—and now is not the time to quit the football scene in China. Because under President Xi Jinping the government is throwing money at ramping up the quality of Chinese football.
CSL clubs have invested vast amounts of cash in foreign stars such as Shanghai SIPG’s 60-million-euro Brazilian Oscar and the disappointing Carlos Tevez at Shanghai Shenhua, both reportedly on some of the highest wages in world football.
China is also forging partnerships with clubs and football associations across the globe to help drag up the level of Chinese youth players, and Xu wants to play his part.
“Today, we have all five generations in the same room,” Xu said at the launch of Chongming Genbao, referring to an array of past, present and perhaps future football stars.
“It is to combine our forces for Chinese football and make efforts for Chinese football.
“I hope that Shanghai can produce more talents to contribute to the nation and get good results for the national team.”
Known for having a temper, Xu has reigned over football in Shanghai for three decades.
After ending his playing career, he coached several Chinese clubs, including Shanghai Shenhua.
But his passion was always for youth development and in 2000 he founded Genbao Football Base, a centre of excellence on Chongming Island, a strip of land northeast of Shanghai.
Xu was inspired by Manchester United and their commitment to youth players, epitomised by the “Class of 92”, the crop of homegrown stars that included Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes.
Using many of the talents to come out of his academy, in 2005 Xu founded a club called Shanghai East Asia and made himself president and for a while coach.
In 2013, Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) became the main sponsor and the club was rebranded Shanghai SIPG, now managed by former Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas.
But Xu’s influence remains strong at SIPG and in Chinese football in general, and even beyond: Last year he bought the Spanish outfit Lorca FC for a reported 1.3 million euros.
Unfashionable Lorca, in the Spanish southeastern region of Murcia, were soon promoted to the Segunda Division, a rung below the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga.
Reports in Spain and China recently suggested Xu was poised to sell up, but he denies that and said at the launch of Chongming Genbao that he could use the Spanish club to help the development of players coming through the new team.
“Maybe I will keep it (Lorca) and maybe it will come in handy,” he said.
“Our players (at Chongming) are still too young. If they go and play in the Spanish team, the team will be relegated so I have to wait.”
World Cup hopes
After Shanghai East Asia and Lorca, Xu will do it all over again at Chongming Genbao.
He is starting with a side of under-18s, players he hope will one day go on to fulfil President Xi’s dream of making China a great footballing power.
Xu will oversee the project but leave the coaching of the team to a trusted lieutenant.
“Let’s not mention the CSL, let’s play it step by step,” he said, pleading for patience.
“Now the hardest leagues are the fourth and third because older players have all moved there so getting promoted is much harder than before.
“My idea is to cultivate football stars, only by making football stars will there be hope for Chinese football.
“I hope there will be someone better than Wu Lei in the young ones so that Chinese football has hope at a World Cup.”