China is hoping to produce a generation of top footballers by building thousands of academies, but experts question the project and warn it may be a waste of time.
New academies are springing up around the world’s most populous nation as China, under the orders of President Xi Jinping, sets about shedding decades of underachievement and becoming a football superpower.
An official plan promises 20,000 academies, in what is a cornerstone of 83rd-ranked China’s ambitions to qualify for and even win the World Cup – a tournament it has so far only reached once.
China’s facilities already include Guangzhou’s Evergrande Football School, the world’s largest with more than 2,000 students, while Hainan’s Mission Hills golf complex is building a center for more than 1,000 children.
This flurry of activity is based on the assumption that drilling millions of children in their passing, shooting and ball-control skills is sure to throw up some world-beaters.
But some believe the academy model is fundamentally flawed.
This is literally of epidemic proportions – everybody thinks that’s the way you do it
Tom Byer, a Japan-based coaching guru hired by China to film daily training slots to be beamed into classrooms nationwide, shook his head when he was asked about the obsession with academies.
“They’ve got the ladder up the wrong wall,” he said, at last month’s LeSports Connects sports business forum in Dongguan, in southern China.
“This is literally of epidemic proportions – everybody thinks that’s the way you do it.”
Byer said countries around the world, including the United States, Australia and India, had also invested in academies, but that the centers had produced few top players.
“We have countries literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to unlock the mystery of development,” he said.
“It’s a phenomenon that they have all of these academies, they have professional clubs, they throw everything but the kitchen sink at development.
“And where are the players?”
Byer’s argument is that learning to control a football properly is so difficult that it must be learned from a very young age, about two years onwards.
Hours of practise
Children have to practise for hours, often alone, with the emphasis on close control and ball-manipulation, rather than kicking the ball away and running after it.
Rather than being honed in academies, South American superstars like Lionel Messi and Neymar learned their skills at home and on the streets, and received scant coaching in childhood, Byer said.
Former England captain Rio Ferdinand agreed, saying children need to start their football development at a “young, young age”, before they even set foot in an academy.
“In our country and in surrounding countries in Europe, who are established nations in football, we get caught up on the academies, the academies, the academies,” he said in Dongguan.
“But how about you sort out the kids before they get to the academies? So the hard work for the coaches and the managers there is already done, the basics are already implemented.”
However, Ferdinand and Byer are unlikely to be heeded in China’s rush to invest in football, seen as a potentially lucrative way to earn the favor of President Xi.
Mission Hills vice-chairman Tenniel Chu said China’s plans to have 50 million school-age players as early as 2020 was an opportunity that was not to be missed.
“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,” said Chu.
“Ultimately it’s to breed our own Messis, or Neymars or Beckhams – to become our national heroes,” he added.
Getting their kicks
Last week, Barcelona, who are also involved with the Mission Hills project, unveiled plans to hold regular training camps in China.
“Imagine a kid in the middle of China. To have the chance to have a coach from Barcelona… that’s the real value,” said Xavier Asensi, Barcelona’s Asia-Pacific managing director.
Peter Kenyon, former chief executive of Manchester United and Chelsea, said China had also shown foresight by adding football to the school curriculum.
“The fact that football’s on the education agenda, an hour a day, means kids will get exposed to it… that alone gives you an opportunity,” said Kenyon, now a strategic adviser for football business deals.
“You’ve got every school doing football for an hour a day. It’s a time-lag (before players develop), but it’s a hell of a statement to make.”