China’s football revolution kicks into overdrive

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
2 Comments

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.

[ USMNT-SVG: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ]

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.”

[ MORE: SVG 0-6 USMNT recap |

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.”

[ MORE: Men in Blazers chat with Pulisic ]

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.

[ WATCH: Pulisic, Kljestan combine… twice ]

“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.”

Potter’s strong start continues as Chelsea cruise past AC Milan

0 Comments

Chelsea vs AC Milan recap: Graham Potter’s Blues turned in their best performance to date (by a long, long way) as they cruised past reigning Serie A champions AC Milan, 3-0, at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]

Wesley Fofana, who later in the first half went off injured, opened the scoring by opening his Chelsea account in the 24th minute. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored for the second straight game to make it 2-0, and Reece James added the third just after the hour mark.

Chelsea were smooth and comfortable in possession (to be expected of a Potter-coached side), while giving AC Milan next to nothing (just three shots in 90 minutes) defensively, as they often tried to do under previous boss Thomas Tuchel.


What we learned from Chelsea vs AC Milan

Chelsea squad better suited to Potter’s style than Tuchel’s

It’s easy to say that based on the results alone (2W-1D-0L), but it only takes a quick scan up and down the squad list to see that the vast majority of the players currently at the club are ill suited to counter-attacking football, both with and without the ball.

Aubameyang is notoriously blessed with the straight-line speed required to get in behind opposing defenses (he played just one game under Tuchel, remember), but the other attackers (Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic) are all technical players who thrive in combination play and sustained possession. Much of the same is true for the midfield, where N’Golo Kante is no longer able to cover every blade of grass, and Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic were miscast as mostly stationary protection for the backline, where there are nothing but ball-playing defenders (both central and wide).

Everyone appear much happier as they express something better resembling their truest selves as players, and the results will only add to those good vibes currently emanating from west London.

Follow @AndyEdMLS


How to watch Chelsea vs AC Milan live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 3pm ET, Wednesday
TV Channel: TUDN, Paramount+
Online: Updates via NBCSports.com


Key storylines

Chelsea grabbed a late, and controversial, win at Palace at the weekend and they’re creating more chances in attack and are slowly getting used to Graham Potter’s tactics. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is off and running as he scored at Palace too and Chelsea continue to look solid defensively. Potter has also seen his injury issues subside as the likes of N’Golo Kante, Edouard Mendy and Marc Cucurella are all expected back soon. As for Milan, they have had a workmanlike start to the Serie A season and sit in fifth place but are just three points off the top and their squad is looking very deep.


In-form players to keep an eye on

Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher scored a beauty to win the game at Palace and he will be flying high, while Aubameyang looked sharp and grabbed his goal at the weekend as he proved he can lead the line in this revamped Chelsea side. Reece James has been in sensational form at right back. For Milan, Olivier Giroud is their top goalscorer this season with five goals in all competitions and Rafael Leao is just behind him with four. Sandro Tonali makes Milan tick in central midfield and will look to dictate the tempo of this game.


The lowdown on AC Milan

With Giroud leading the lead and Chelsea academy product Fikayo Tomori anchoring the defense, there are a couple of ex-Chelsea players who will be desperate to prove a point against their old club. Aside from that storyline, Milan head coach Stefano Pioli has created a dynamic, hard-working side who are very tough to break down and have individual quality to score plenty of goals from counters and set pieces. That will concern Chelsea as defensively they’ve struggled on those two areas.


Chelsea team news, injuries, lineup options

This game may come too soon for Kante, Mendy and Cucurella to start but Potter will be delighted they are almost fit, while Gallagher, Broja and Pulisic are all pushing hard for minutes. Will Thiago Silva and Wesley Fofana start at center back again? Or will Koulibaly come in to give Silva a break?



Man City hammer Copenhagen 5-0, Haaland scores two more goals

0 Comments

Man City vs Copenhagen recap: Erling Haaland scored two more goals to bring his season tally to 19 in 11 games as the two-time defending Premier League champions hammered Danish side Copenhagen 5-0 at Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]

Haaland scored goals no. 1 and 2 for Manchester City before Pep Guardiola brought him off at halftime, up 3-0 following an own goal (caused by Haaland) not long before the break. Riyad Mahrez added the fourth from the penalty spot and Julian Alvarez bagged his first UCL goal to complete the scoring.

That’s three wins from three games for Man City in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Their lead over 2nd-place Borussia Dortmund remains three points after the Bundesliga side also won on Wednesday. City and Dortmund will meet in Germany on matchday 5.


What we learned from Man City vs Copenhagen

Total and complete dominance, as expect, from Manchester City

Copenhagen attempted all of two shots in 90 minutes on Wednesday, the first of which didn’t come until the 72nd minute, at which point Man City had already attempted 24. Haaland took four himself, in just 45 minutes, as the midfield playmakers (Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo on Wednesday) continue to simply feed the monster.

Whereas possession used to aimlessly loiter around the penalty area, Manchester City now look to exploit the space in behind the defense anytime it presents itself. The runs that Haaland makes — perhaps the best part of his game, by the way — pose a constant and eternal threat to opposing defenses, particularly when Kevin De Bruyne is pulling the strings, leaving most anyone and everyone in their path (and their wake) wondering what exactly you’re supposed to do.

If anyone has ideas, please share them.

Follow @AndyEdMLS


How to watch Manchester City vs Copenhagen live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 3pm ET, Wednesday
TV Channel: TUDN, Paramount+
Online: Updates via NBCSports.com


Key storylines + in-form players to keep an eye on

This time, we can combine the “key storylines” and “in-form players” sections: It’s Phil Foden and Erling Haaland.

Let’s focus on the latter.

Erling Haaland is threatening to put up season numbers that would seem impossible were we not to have experience Lionel Messi’s 2011-12 season at Barcelona. That season saw Messi score 50 goals and 19 assists in La Liga while adding 20 more goals and nine assists in other competitions.

The match total? 53.

That works out to 1.4 goals and 0.4 assists per game.

Haaland? So far he has 17 goals and three assists in 11 matches, good for… 1.54 goals and 0.27 assists per game.

So, yes, Haaland is currently on his “Messi prime” grind.


The lowdown on Copenhagen

Copenhagen enters this match hoping that star goalkeeper — ex-Brighton starter — Mathew Ryan can help shut down an incredible City attack.


Manchester City team news, injuries, lineup options

John Stones (thigh), Kalvin Phillips (shoulder), and Kyle Walker (muscular) are set to miss the match, while Rodri (lower leg) faces a late fitness test.

UEFA Champions League: How to watch, predictions, updates, scores, schedule, fixtures

1 Comment

The 2022-23 UEFA Champions League group stage is here and we are ready to roll between now and November.

With a congested schedule due to the 2022 World Cup kicking off in November, we will have midweek Champions League action every week between now and early November (aside from the international break in late September).

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Can Real Madrid win back-to-back Champions League titles? Or will the Premier League giants continue to reach the final (at least one PL team has reached four of the last five finals with two all-English finals in the last four) and go one better this season?

Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Inter Milan are together in the “group of death,” while Tottenham were handed a (relatively) easy draw with Eintracht Frankfurt, Sporting CP and Marseille in Group D. Manchester City will face perennial European noise-makers in Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla in Group G, while PSG and Juventus were paired up in Group H.

Rangers are back in the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2010, joining bitter Glasgow rivals Celtic to give the Scottish Premiership two clubs in the UCL group stage for the first time in 15 years.

Elsewhere, Benfica, Copenhagen, Dinamo Zagreb, Viktoria Plzen and Maccabi Haifi made it through the playoffs, while this is the first time the Bundesliga has had five teams in the group stage after Frankfurt won the Europa League last season to qualify.

Below is everything you need following the UEFA Champions League group stage.


UEFA Champions League schedule, dates, how to watch

Dates: Group stage to be played September to November
Online: Live updates via NBCSports.com
How to watch: TUDN, Paramount+


Champions League group stage fixtures (all kick off times ET)

Matchday 3

Tuesday, 4 October
Bayern Munich 5-0 Viktoria Plzen
Marseille 4-1 Sporting CP
Liverpool 2-0 Rangers
Ajax 1-6 Napoli
Porto 2-0 Leverkusen
Club Brugge 2-0 Atletico Madrid
Inter Milan 1-0 Barcelona
Eintracht Frankfurt 0-0 Tottenham Hotspur

Wednesday, 5 October
Salzburg vs Dinamo Zagreb (12:45)
Leipzig vs Celtic (12:45)
Chelsea vs AC Milan (3:00)
Real Madrid vs Shakhtar (3:00)
Man City vs Copenhagen (3:00)
Sevilla vs Dortmund (3:00)
Juventus vs Maccabi Haifa (3:00)
Benfica vs Paris (3:00)


JPW’s Champions League predictions – Matchday 3

Tuesday, 4 October
Bayern 4-1 Plzen
Marseille 2-2 Sporting CP
Liverpool 4-2 Rangers
Ajax 2-2 Napoli
Porto 1-2 Leverkusen
Club Brugge 1-2 Atletico
Inter 1-1 Barcelona
Frankfurt 1-2 Tottenham

Wednesday, 5 October
Salzburg 2-1 Dinamo Zagreb
Leipzig 3-1 Celtic
Chelsea 2-1 AC Milan
Real Madrid 3-1 Shakhtar
Man City 4-1 Copenhagen
Sevilla 2-1 Dortmund
Juventus 3-1 Maccabi Haifa
Benfica 1-4 Paris


Matchday 1

Tuesday, 6 September
Dinamo Zagreb 1-0 Chelsea — Highlights, Tuchel’s furious response
Dortmund 3-0 Copenhagen — WATCH: Reyna’s two assists
Salzburg 1-1 AC Milan — Dest makes Milan debut off bench
Celtic 0-3 Real Madrid — Carter-Vickers’ Bhoys eventually falter
Leipzig 1-4 Shakhtar — Ukrainians off to rollicking start
Sevilla 0-4 Man City– Highlights, Guardiola’s glowing reaction
Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 Juventus — McKennie scores in loss
Benfica 2-0 Maccabi Haifa — Cohen makes 3 saves in loss

Wednesday, 7 September
Ajax 4-0 Rangers — Dutch giants hammer Gers as Alvarez gets ball rolling
Frankfurt 0-3 Sporting CP — Portuguese giants led by Edwards’ opener
Napoli 4-1 Liverpool — Highlights as Klopp’s boys run ragged
Atletico 2-1 Porto — Griezmann scores 101st minute winner amid late drama
Club Brugge 1-0 Leverkusen — Sylla seals big win for Belgian champs
Barcelona 5-1 Plzen — Lewandowski hat trick leads rout
Inter 0-2 Bayern — Sane unplayable as Bayern ease to win
Tottenham 2-0 Marseille — Richarlison the late hero on his UCL debut

Matchday 2

Tuesday, 13 September
Plzen 0-2 Inter — Goal, assist for Dzeko in win over 10-man hosts
Sporting CP 2-0 Tottenham – Conte rues details plus video highlights
Liverpool 2-1 Ajax –Klopp relief at rebound win; Video highlights
Porto 0-4 Club Brugge — Four different scorers highlight blowout
Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 Atletico Madrid — Frimpong sets up two late goals
Bayern Munich 2-0 Barcelona — Wasteful finishing haunts Lewandowski return
Marseille 0-1 Eintracht Frankfurt — Late first-half Lindstrom goal the difference

Wednesday, 14 September
AC Milan 3-1 Dinamo Zagreb
Shakhtar 1-1 Celtic
Chelsea 1-1 Salzburg – RECAP & HIGHLIGHTS
Rangers 0-3 Napoli
Real Madrid 2-0 RB Leipzig
Man City 2-1 Dortmund – RECAP & HIGHLIGHTS
Copenhagen 0-0 Sevilla
Juventus 1-2 Benfica
Maccabi Haifa 1-3 Paris Saint-Germain


Matchday 3

Tuesday, 4 October
Bayern vs Plzen (12:45)
Marseille vs Sporting CP (12:45)
Liverpool vs Rangers (3:00)
Ajax vs Napoli (3:00)
Porto vs Leverkusen (3:00)
Club Brugge vs Atletico (3:00)
Inter vs Barcelona (3:00)
Frankfurt vs Tottenham (3:00)

Wednesday, 5 October
Salzburg vs Dinamo Zagreb (12:45)
Leipzig vs Celtic (12:45)
Chelsea vs AC Milan (3:00)
Real Madrid vs Shakhtar (3:00)
Man City vs Copenhagen (3:00)
Sevilla vs Dortmund (3:00)
Juventus vs Maccabi Haifa (3:00)
Benfica vs Paris (3:00)


Matchday 4

Tuesday, 11 October
Copenhagen vs Man City (12:45)
Maccabi Haifa vs Juventus (12:45)
Dinamo Zagreb vs Salzburg (3:00)
AC Milan vs Chelsea (3:00)
Shakhtar vs Real Madrid (3:00)
Celtic vs Leipzig (3:00)
Dortmund vs Sevilla (3:00)
Paris vs Benfica (3:00)

Wednesday, 12 October
Napoli vs Ajax (12:45)
Atletico vs Club Brugge (12:45)
Rangers vs Liverpool (3:00)
Leverkusen vs Porto (3:00)
Barcelona vs Inter (3:00)
Plzen vs Bayern (3:00)
Tottenham vs Frankfurt (3:00)
Sporting CP vs Marseille (3:00)

Matchday 5

Tuesday, 25 October
Salzburg vs Chelsea (12:45)
Sevilla vs Copenhagen (12:45)
Dinamo Zagreb vs AC Milan (3:00)
Celtic vs Shakhtar (3:00)
Leipzig vs Real Madrid (3:00)
Dortmund vs Man City (3:00)
Paris vs Maccabi Haifa (3:00)
Benfica vs Juventus (3:00)

Wednesday, 26 October
Club Brugge vs Porto (12:45)
Inter vs Plzen (12:45)
Napoli vs Rangers (3:00)
Ajax vs Liverpool (3:00)
Atletico vs Leverkusen (3:00)
Barcelona vs Bayern (3:00)
Tottenham vs Sporting CP (3:00)
Frankfurt vs Marseille (3:00)

Matchday 6

Tuesday, 1 November
Porto vs Atletico (18:45)
Leverkusen vs Club Brugge (18:45)
Liverpool vs Napoli (21:00)
Rangers vs Ajax (21:00)
Bayern vs Inter (21:00)
Plzen vs Barcelona (21:00)
Sporting CP vs Frankfurt (21:00)
Marseille vs Tottenham (21:00)

Wednesday, 2 November
Real Madrid vs Celtic (12:45)
Shakhtar vs Leipzig (12:45)
Chelsea vs Dinamo Zagreb (3:00)
AC Milan vs Salzburg (3:00)
Man City vs Sevilla (3:00)
Copenhagen vs Dortmund (3:00)
Juventus vs Paris (3:00)
Maccabi Haifa vs Benfica (3:00)


Knockout stage dates

Round of 16 draw: 7 November
Round of 16: 14/15/21/22 February & 7/8/14/15 March 2023
Quarter-final and semi-final draw: 17 March 2023
Quarter-finals: 11/12 & 18/19 April 2023
Semi-finals: 9/10 & 16/17 May 2023
Final: 10 June 2023


Champions League group stage standings

Group A
Napoli — 6 points (+6 GD)
Ajax — 3 (-2)
Liverpool — 3 (+3)
Rangers — 0 (-7)

Group B
Club Brugge — 6 (+5)
Bayer Leverkusen — 3 (1)
Atletico Madrid — 3 (-1)
Porto — 0 (-5)

Group C
Bayern Munich — 6 (+4)
Barcelona — 3 (+2)
Inter Milan — 3 (0)
Viktoria Plzen — 0 (-6)

Group D
Sporting CP — 6 (+5)
Tottenham Hotspur — 3 (0)
Eintracht Frankfurt — 3 (-2)
Marseille — 0

Group E
AC Milan — 4 (+2)
Dinamo Zagreb — 3 (-1)
Red Bull Salzburg — 2 (0)
Chelsea — 1 (-1)

Group F
Real Madrid — 6 (+5)
Shakhtar Donetsk — 3 (+3)
Celtic — 1 (-3)
RB Leipzig — 0 (-5)

Group G
Manchester City — 6 (+5)
Borussia Dortmund — 3 (+2)
Copenhagen — 1 (-3)
Sevilla — 1 (-4)

Group H
Paris Saint-Germain — 6 (+3)
Benfica — 6 (+3)
Juventus — 0 (-2)
Maccabi Haifa — 0 (-4)


Ukraine to join Spain-Portugal host bid for 2030 World Cup

2 Comments

NYON, Switzerland — Hosting World Cup matches in 2030 would be “the dream of people who survived the horrors of war,” Ukrainian soccer federation president Andriy Pavelko said Wednesday after his country launched a joint bid with Spain and Portugal.

The leaders of the three soccer federations joined together at UEFA headquarters to present a campaign they hope will connect people beyond the world of sports.

“This is the dream of millions of Ukrainian fans,” Pavelko said at a news conference, “the dream of people who survived the horrors of war or are still in the occupied territories and over whom the Ukrainian flag will surely fly soon.”

Pavelko said the project is backed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

[ MORE: Premier League Golden Boot race ]

The expected Spain-Portugal bid, which has been in the works for more than three years, previously was made UEFA’s preferred candidate. FIFA will vote on the host in 2024.

“Now it’s not the Iberian bid, it’s the European bid,” Spain soccer federation president Luis Rubiales said at the launch. “Together we represent the power of transformation football has in society.”

No details were given about how many games at the 48-team World Cup would be staged in Ukraine or in which cities. The Olympic Stadium in Kyiv hosted the finals of the 2012 European Championship and the 2018 Champions League.

The European bid is expected to face a South American candidacy with co-hosts Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Saudi Arabia, which has built close ties to FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, has been preparing a multi-continent bid potentially including Egypt and Greece. It is unclear how Greece would be approved by UEFA to be part of that.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]