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China’s football revolution kicks into overdrive

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BEIJING (AP) As coaches take notes, teenagers dribble footballs through a course of cones on Ritan Middle School’s gleaming artificial field in eastern Beijing, part of a massive program to promote soccer as a pillar of China’s rise to global prominence.

The 14-year-old boys and girls were being scrutinized under a newly added section of Beijing’s high school entrance exam, which beginning this year includes an elective football skills test in addition to such standards as Chinese, math, and English.

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While the skills tests comprise only a small part of the placement exam, the fact education officials tweaked a notoriously rigid standardized test is one sign of how thoroughly China is mobilizing under President Xi Jinping’s drive to overhaul the game domestically and turn the Chinese team into a World Cup winner by 2050.

The football revolution spans from schoolyards to the top professional league. Local officials tout how thousands of high schools are becoming government-designated football “priority” schools. Cities announce hundreds of football complexes being built every week.

Chinese clubs are paying record fees to woo stars away from Europe and boost interest in the domestic league. And in the past year alone, Chinese investors have spent a staggering $3 billion to buy stakes in European clubs, with the stated aim of bringing football know-how back to China.

“We’ve talked about football under several top leaders but until now, there has never been this will,” said Pang Xiaozhong, former director of the Institute of Sport Science, an arm of China’s state sports program. “It’s unprecedented.”

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Boosting China’s standing in the game is part of Xi’s push to raise China’s global prestige. With the national men’s team ranked No. 78, a turnaround would be nothing short of cathartic. While the women’s team has often found international success, China’s men have qualified for only one World Cup, bouncing out of the 2002 competition without scoring a goal.

Decades after China’s government successfully created a Soviet-style sports juggernaut, emphasizing highly technical disciplines such as diving, the question is whether the sports-by-diktat approach can work for the world’s most popular game. Unlike sports such as gymnastics, in which elite state academies develop selected prospects from a young age, commentators say football success will require a huge player base and vibrant, structured youth leagues – all of which China is trying to create practically from scratch.

In May, the cabinet issued a 50-point plan that called on local and provincial governments to promote football by setting up school programs, creating amateur leagues, offering tax breaks for pitch construction and recruiting foreign coaches with the goal of establishing 70,000 new fields and producing 50 million school-age players by 2020.

In a top-down system under which the ruling Communist Party still issues five-year economic plans, this state-led mix of infrastructure investment and mass grassroots mobilization is precisely what Beijing sees as needed to bring home a World Cup trophy.

“In China, the role of the government is always the biggest and most effective,” Pang said. “Football is something we can grasp if we’re methodic.”

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Although the government has not released cost estimates for its development plan, analysts say hundreds of millions could be spent over the next five years on facilities alone.

What has been made public, however, is the $300 million this year that Chinese Super League clubs have splashed out recruiting stars such as Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jackson Martinez and former Arsenal striker Gervinho. And that does not include the wages on offer at Chinese clubs, which are now some of the highest in the world.

Clubs have also splurged on high-profile coaches, including ex-Real Madrid and Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, former Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and one-time England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said there’s no reason to doubt China could become a regional football superpower. But he warned there were similarities with the government’s approach to economic planning that, despite its successes, can lead to inefficiency or graft. One example is the wave of interest that followed the 2002 World Cup run, which quickly fizzled out when the domestic league was hit by rampant corruption scandals.

“The leadership sketches a hugely ambitious and yet ambiguous vision and people lower down the chain – government bureaus, provincial governments – and those hoping to curry favor, especially in business, pick it up and run with it,” Sullivan said. “The problem is everyone often runs in different directions.”

Chinese football investors are already scrambling to buy into storied clubs such as Inter Milan and AC Milan, sometimes speaking of those deals as patriotic buyers.

In a recent interview, Jiantong “Tony” Xia, who took over England’s Aston Villa in May, said a main objective was to eventually field Chinese players and establish academies.

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“It’s been proven that buying foreign firms with know-how and then bringing that back to the domestic industry has been the most efficient route,” Xia said.

As China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi’s personal influence on the promotion of football has been enormous.

The president makes no secret of his love for the game which he picked up as a child playing alongside the scions of other Communist Party leaders at the elite Beijing 101 Middle School.

A 1983 exhibition match between China and English club Watford was said to have left a particular impression on Xi. China was then just opening up to the outside world after decades of Maoism, and when Watford trounced the Chinese national team, Xi left the Beijing Workers Stadium fuming, childhood friend Nie Weiping recalled in an interview years later with state media.

“He felt hurt watching the match,” Nie was quoted as saying. “But he’s continued to always follow Team China.”

Those presidential concerns appear to be having a direct effect at the grassroots.

On the leafy Ritan Middle School campus, extracurricular director Xu Fuxing described how the public school’s budget has risen 25 percent since Xi’s administration made sports an educational priority.

The campus recently resurfaced an artificial field and Xu has hired youth football academy Huawen to train its students. Aside from offering traveling competitions that barely existed a few years ago, Huawen employs coaches such as Juan Varela, a former trainer with Atletico Madrid who moved to China earlier this year and works with help from translators.

Speaking over Varela’s cries of “Spread out! Spread out!” as eight-year-old kids swarmed after loose balls, Xu said the national plan’s key element is to encourage the formation of clubs and leagues to offer competitive experiences to young players.

Even small measures such as Beijing’s new football exam have encouraged kids to try the game and, as Xu said, “It symbolizes much more to come.”

Belarusian Premier League roundup: BATE Borisov pick up win, end early-season drought

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The Belarusian Premier League – the only active European top-flight league at the moment – continued on Saturday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

FC Rukh 0-1 BATE Borisov

With an early goal from midfielder Stanislav Dragun, BATE Borisov, Belarus’ most successful team (15 league titles) and a regular face in European competition, earned their first win of the season. Kirill Alshevsky, who took over at the helm prior to the season, had started his spell on a two-game losing streak.

BATE, despite not winning the possession battle decisively, generated twice as many shots on target as the visitors, registering a total of 11 shots throughout 90 minutes at Borisov Arena.

A winner of 13 straight Belarusian Premier League titles – spanning from 2006 to 2018 – pressure began looming over BATE after starting the 2020 campaign with back-to-back lackluster results. BATE, who lost to Arsenal in Europa League’s Round of 32 in April 2019, were outscored 5-2 in the first, two games of the league.

Dinamo Minsk, the second most successful Belarusian side, also picked up their first three points on Friday, following a slower-than-usual start to the season. Meanwhile, defending champion Dinamo Brest fell 2-1 to Slavia-Mozyr, dropping to eighth on the table.

Elsewhere in Belarusian Premier League 

Shakhtyor 0-0 Nerman

Dinamo Brest 1-2 Slavia-Mozyr

NWSL extends league-wide training moratorium through May

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The NWSL is extending its league-wide training moratorium another month amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced on Saturday.

All NWSL teams will be unable to partake in team trainings until at least May 5, extending its previous training moratorium that was set to expire on Sunday, April 5. The 2020 season – which was set to start on April 18 – is expected to start by the end of June, according to NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird.

“We’ve been just communicating with our players and we’re targeting for the end of June for our season to start,” Baird told The Equalizer. “I say that with conviction and hope, but … we’re gonna adhere to the public health guidelines that are in place at the time and I don’t think that we can predict what they are. But our strategy is in place.”

Earlier this week, Major League Soccer and United Soccer League extended their training moratorium through April 24 and April 19, respectively.

Report: England manager Gareth Southgate agrees to 30 percent pay cut

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England manager Gareth Southgate has agreed to a 30 percent pay cut amid the coronavirus pandemic, our partners at Sky Sports reported on Saturday.

[ MORE: What PL clubs are doing to help during coronavirus ] 

Southgate’s move, which is reportedly expected to be confirmed by the Football Association (FA) next week, comes hours after the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) released a statement on behalf of the Premier League players responding to proposed pay cuts.

A FA spokesperson told Sky Sports the following: “The financial implications of the coronavirus are not yet known however, as a not-for-profit organization, we want to ensure that we take the appropriate course of action to support the wider organization and our employees.

“We will make a further announcement on our next steps in due course.”

On Friday, Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe – and a handful of technical staff personnel – became the first Premier League manager to take a voluntary pay cut. Howe’s “significant, voluntary” pay cuts were done in light of the club furloughing non-playing employees throughout the organization, joining Tottenham, Norwich, Newcastle and Liverpool.

Spanish league and players still far apart on salary cuts

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish league and players are still far apart on the size of the salary cuts they need to take to help reduce the financial impact caused by the coronavirus outbreak, with the footballers saying the organization wants them to carry nearly half the total losses.

The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.

The players have said they are willing to reduce their salaries, but not as much as the league or the clubs want.

“After analyzing the current circumstances of the sector and given the distance in conversations with the players’ association, it is necessary to adopt measures in view of the serious economic crisis that COVID-19 is causing in the Spanish soccer industry,” the league said in a statement.

It also added that government furloughs are “an exceptional mechanism to avoid and mitigate the negative impact that COVID-19 is having on the sector, and thus guarantee its subsequent recovery.”

According to media reports, the league expects losses of 957 million euros ($1.03 billion) if the season is canceled, with 303 million euros ($327 million) lost if it resumes with games in empty stadiums and 156 million euros ($168 million) of deficits if it continues with fans.

The players said the total cuts in salaries requested by the league would account for 451 million euros ($487 million) if the top flight cannot restart.

The reduction in salaries being discussed reportedly varies depending on the clubs, and also on whether they are playing in the Champions League or the Europa League.

Team captains met with the players’ association late Friday to discuss their options after the league earlier in the day called for all clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs to reduce labor costs while the stoppage of play continued. The furloughs help the clubs and guarantee players their jobs once the crisis is over.

The league said it is responsible for preserving an industry that represents 1.37 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and employs about 185,000 people.

Atlético Madrid and Barcelona were among the clubs to resort to the furloughs in recent days. Both reached an agreement with players to reduce their salaries by 70 percent, and guaranteed the wages of other employees were unaffected.

There are nearly 125,000 cases of the new coronavirus in Spain, which on Saturday surpassed Italy as the country with the second-most infections behind the United States. The death toll in the nation stands at 11,744.

The government is expected to extend lockdown measures until April 26, likely keeping the Spanish league suspended until then.

The league has said the season won’t resume until authorities deem it safe for everyone’s health. It said it will recommend a “minimum of 15 days” of practice before the games can restart, though it suggested recently the training period may begin with restrictions before the lockdown is removed.

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