DONGGUAN, China: The owner of the world’s biggest golf resort is joining China’s rush to football investment by building a Barcelona-backed academy aimed at breeding a new generation of “national heroes.”
Mission Hills, which has two giant golf complexes in China’s south, hopes to house more than 1,000 children at its under-construction facility on Hainan island, which will also be a training center for China’s national team and top clubs.
It follows a stampede of Chinese investment in foreign clubs, players, coaches and media rights after President Xi Jinping said he wanted the world’s most populous nation to become a global football power.
Spanish superclub Barcelona is on board as a “strategic financial partner” and will provide coaching expertise at the new academy, Mission Hills vice-chairman Tenniel Chu told Agence France-Presse.
The idea is not new: in the same province as Mission Hills’ record-breaking, 12-course Guangdong resort, Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande have an academy in conjunction with Real Madrid for more than 2,000 students, reportedly the world’s largest.
Views are mixed on the hothouse approach to producing players but Chu said the new academy, at its Haikou golf resort on Hainan, will be able to tap an enormous new market following Xi’s decree.
“The grassroots level is very important in growing the game,” he said in an interview at this week’s LeSports Connects sports forum at Mission Hills in Guangdong.
“Our president Xi, as you know his dream is by 2020 to have 50 million full-time footballers… So we’re looking at a huge market in promoting the juniors’ development.”
China’s 83rd-ranked national team, often a source of disappointment for Chinese fans and now coached by Italy’s Marcello Lippi, will use the academy as a winter training base.
China’s well-heeled top three clubs — Guangzhou Evergrande, Jiangsu Suning and Shanghai SIPG — will also train at the facility during the Chinese Super League’s off-season, Chu said.
‘Our own Messis’
The academy already has five pitches and will grow to 30, he said. “With 30 pitches you can accommodate up to 1,000 students at any time,” added Chu.
Children will also be able to attend Mission Hills’ 5,000-capacity international school, another initiative on the sprawling, 10-golf-course Haikou site.
“Ultimately it’s to breed our own (Lionel) Messis, or Neymars or Beckhams — our national heroes,” Chu said of the football academy.
“It can stimulate aspiring juniors to have a go in life, just like what Yao Ming did with the NBA promoting basketball to the people of China.”
Mission Hills was founded in 1992 and is run by Tenniel and his brother, Ken, after their late father — who made his fortune in cardboard boxes — snapped up a site covering more than 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) between Dongguan and Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, Mission Hills also announced a ‘Boris Becker Tennis Academy’ at its Guangdong site, another effort to diversify from the core business of golf.
Chinese authorities have a fractious relationship with golf, which was banned under Mao Zedong. Last year, the Communist Party appeared to bar its 88 million members from the sport, before rowing back on its position.
Mission Hills has hosted five editions of golf’s World Cup and the 2012 WGC-HSBC Champions, but now focuses on celebrity events featuring Hollywood stars rather than top-level tournaments.
Chu said he regularly rejects proposals for international tournaments, adding that Mission Hills gets “five or six times” more media attention for the celebrity events.
Mission Hills’ latest initiative follows a Chinese buying spree of foreign football assets, with investments in England, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Australia.
Guangzhou Evergrande have twice been crowned Asian champions but success remains elusive for China’s national team, who have only ever reached one World Cup and are struggling in qualifying for the next edition in 2018.