Much has been said and written about the investment into the Chinese Super League, but the real story is happening away from the glare of the world’s media as the country looks to establish itself as an international football superpower.
Mads Davidsen clearly likes a challenge. Forced to stop playing in his early 20s, he took youth coaching positions with B.93 and Brondby in his native Denmark before moving to China in 2012 to head up the Ebbe Sand Soccer Academy, which aims to encourage more Chinese youngsters to play football.
Davidsen, who also has a Masters degree in Journalism and History, then took a coaching role under Sven-Goran Eriksson at Chinese Super League (CSL) outfit Guangzhou R&F the next year before following the former England boss to Shanghai SIPG another 12 months down the line.
Now technical director at SIPG, Davidsen’s job has a wide remit, but the 34-year-old retains an enormous passion for youth development and has a responsibility to help develop youngsters to eventually represent the Chinese national team.
The president of China, President Xi, has been very much involved in decision making within Chinese football and has made his opinions well known regarding the use of Chinese under-23 players in games (more on that later). He wants to see China begin to make a move on the world stage and has recently talked about bidding to host the 2030 World Cup.
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But Davidsen believes one thing is imperative. “Patience. A key word if this project must be a success,” he says.
“The youth environment needs a lift – on and off the pitch. The youth coaches must understand the demands of modern top (level) football, because only after understanding this, you know how to produce a top player for the future.
“My prediction is that it will be 15 years before we see a real effect on these projects, but of course along the way there will be progression and development.”
Very few Chinese players have made much of an impact on the world stage, but investment in the grassroots game and the arrival in the country of respected youth developers such as Davidsen means that could change in time.
“Players are always a result of the coaching they are exposed to, combined with their born potential, and Chinese players have a lot of potential,” Davidsen says.
“We just need to make the crucial years from eight to thirteen more structured to maximise the player’s potential for the coming generations because Chinese players work hard from an early age and that’s an advantage.”
While youth development is important for any country, the investment in the CSL has obviously caught the headlines. Davidsen has been involved in SIPG’s recruitment, and the Shanghai side have been making some of the biggest signings.
“My role is to secure the development of this club on all levels,” Davidsen says. “They give me power and influence, which is very important for my passion to work hard every day.”
Hulk and Oscar are among the players to have joined the club, now coached by Andre Villas-Boas, and the investments have paid off well, with a 4-0 first-leg win over Guangzhou Evergrande putting SIPG well on their way to the Asian Champions League semi-final.
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Though they trail Phil Scolari’s side in the league by eight points with only seven games to play, they hold a 2-1 lead over the same team in the semi-finals of the Chinese FA Cup going into the second leg on Wednesday.
It has not all been plain sailing, however, with the club’s transfer policy thrown into chaos thanks to a rule change just weeks before the season.
Clubs were previously required to field at least one Asian player, but with many clubs having already made signings, that rule was changed to stipulate a Chinese under-23 player must start every league game.
With the rule that only three foreign players are allowed on the pitch at any time remaining in place, SIPG’s plans for the season were thrown into disarray after they had spent a significant sum on Uzbek midfielder Odil Ahmedov.
“No comment,” says Davidsen on the situation, perhaps wary of being reprimanded.
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Villas-Boas was less withdrawn, stating at the time: “This decision should have been made after the season, not a month before the new one when teams having been building in accordance to the previous rules. Ahmedov is a great player but we cannot use him.”
Davidsen is in a good position to judge whether the huge amounts of money being spent in China is a good thing having arrived just before the big money really started being spent.
“The big plan to improve Chinese football on an international level requires different steps on and off the pitch, and one step off the pitch has been to brand Chinese football better and make the world aware of the big ambitions of this country,” he says. “I think the world has found out that Chinese means big business.”
But what about the negatives of this exposure?
“Too many wrong or misunderstood stories have been placed in the western media as they don’t understand Chinese culture or even use research to actually learn about the project.
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“No doubt foreign players have a big impact on Chinese football, but there is a lot of other interesting things going on as well with local players.”
Davidsen’s passion for his club, his adopted country and his job are obvious in his answers, and he is clearly in it for the long haul in the development of Chinese footballers, both at SIPG and nationally.
So if in a few years China meet Denmark at the World Cup, who does he want to win? “Ah, in my heart I will always be Danish, so no doubt there even though I also love China.”
If his predictions about youth development are accurate, maybe that dream match-up could become a reality.
By Charles Ducksbury
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