Unless you have spent the last two years living under a rock, you are probably aware of the rise of the Chinese Super League.
Since 2015, Oscar, Alex Teixeira, Ricardo Carvalho, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Fredy Guarin, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Tevez, Ramires, Graziano Pelle, Paulinho, Hulk, John Obi Mikel and Axel Witsel have traded European football for the Far East, while plenty of others – such as Premier League strikers Diego Costa and Wayne Rooney – have been heavily linked with a move to the up-and-coming competition.
But beyond the eye-catching transfer fees and wage packets – Tevez, at the age of 33, is reportedly earning £615,000 per week at Shanghai Shenhua – what is life really like in the world of Chinese football? And will the nation be able to fulfil its ambition of becoming a global superpower on the pitch?
Gary White certainly does not have all the answers, but he is one of a small number of Brits with first-hand experience of the game in the world’s most populous nation.
The Southampton-born coach, who previously took Guam to their highest ever FIFA ranking and was interviewed by the FA for the England Under-21 job earlier this year, spent six months in charge of second-tier side Shanghai Shenxin in 2016, when he successfully saved the club from relegation to the third division.
“I think they can establish themselves as a superpower sooner than people think, as long as they get the balance right in terms of getting players developed and getting them experience at a high level,” says White, who was joined at Shenxin by fellow Englishman Louis Lancaster.
“They’ve got Tom Byer [a well-regarded American youth coach who has worked throughout Asia] at grassroots level, trying to get Chinese players to get out and play. I know he’s doing a great job.
“There’s also a lot more investment now at academy level, as clubs try to create elite youth players. They [the Chinese FA] just need to make sure they spend money in development as well as in transfer fees for established names – but that’s what they’re doing now.”
There has certainly been scepticism about China’s approach to growing the game in a country where participation remains relatively low, but White believes that much of the good work goes unreported amid the sexier stories of South American stars relocating to Shanghai. The facilities, he explains, would be the envy of many European nations.
“Every stadium we played at was world class, particularly the playing surfaces which were always good, sometimes excellent,” he continues.
“Our stadium at Shenxin – and bear in mind we were in League One – was a 30,000-seater, football-specific ground. The grass was as good as anywhere in the world, and we even had a training centre with grass pitches, a gym, a sauna, a cafeteria and a hotel with four or five star rooms on the same site.
“Our facilities were as good as I’ve seen anywhere and I’ve been around a lot of Premier League clubs. And I know for sure that ours weren’t the best.
“In terms of facilities to host a major tournament like the World Cup, China already has them in place to do that tomorrow.”
White took full advantage of the impressive infrastructure at the club, guiding Shenxin to mid-table after finding them mired in relegation trouble when he was appointed in May.
At that point, the club based in the Jinshan district of Shanghai had just nine points to their name after 12 matches, with a second demotion in two years a very real possibility.
By the end of the campaign, though, Shenxin had risen to 10th place in the 16-team division and scored the most goals in a season in the club’s history, as well as breaking records for the biggest away win and the most goals scored in a first half.
“The biggest problem I identified was a disconnection between the foreign players and the domestic players, so I had to strategically find a way to bring them together as a family,” White explains.
“In the first week I got the whole playing staff together in a bid to get everyone on the same page. There wasn’t really a philosophy as to how the players played, so we had to create that as well. I also needed to get their fitness levels up, as I wanted us to press opponents high up the pitch – something that’s not really done in Chinese football.
“But before all that, I locked all the players and staff in a room and said: ‘Look, I don’t care if you’re from Brazil, Nigeria, England, Spain, China or wherever, when we come out of this room we’re all part of the Shenxin family.’
“The foreign players really took that on board and apologised to the rest for any hard feelings they might have had. I even put boxing gloves in the room and told them to sort out their problems there and then. Thankfully, no-one felt the need to use them.”
That mix of nationalities within playing squads is becoming increasingly commonplace in China, with two or three foreign stars often supplemented by a crop of local talent.
While the presence of players like Oscar, Tevez and Lavezzi has undoubtedly raised the interest of the public, there are doubts about whether such seasoned internationals are actually improving the standard of play in the Middle Kingdom.
“China’s FIFA ranking is obviously not a real reflection of their level,” White insists. “When I look at the quality of players at my club and the ones we played against, then you look at the ability in the Super League, there’s plenty of quality in the Chinese pool of players.
“I went to see Shenhua and Tevez play Brisbane Roar earlier this month. It’s players like him that the fans want to see.
“The only thing I’m worried about with the big names in the Super League is their positions on the field: there aren’t many Chinese No.9s or No.10s, and you’re starting to see that knock-on effect with the national team because they just don’t create enough in the attacking third.
“It could be a case of these players not being given a chance to play enough in the domestic league because most of the superstar players are strikers or attackers.
“But on the other side you could say that the defending is getting better because these Chinese players are forced to go up against some world-class players.
“I think the balance just needs to be watched; there’s a clear divide between defensive and attacking positions, and you need to find the right mix.”
One thing is for sure, though: White is convinced that China is moving in the right direction, and he cannot think of a place he would rather be right now.
“I’d love to work here again,” the 42-year-old, who is still living in Shanghai, says. “If there’s a project for a young coach to get his teeth into, I want to hear about it. My immediate future is in this country, definitely.”
What the future holds for Chinese football is less clear, but it will certainly be intriguing to watch.
By Greg Lea
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