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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.”

Everton’s Silva: ‘It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score’

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Like in the two games leading into Friday night, Everton have done their part in creating clear-cut chances.

They haven’t done their part in finishing, however. A major point of concern for manager Marco Silva following his side’s 2-0 loss against Aston Villa. From the BBC:

“It is really difficult to see how we can lose this game when we create so many chances to score. It is a tough place to play football.”

The Toffees have now outshot all three opponents they’ve faced this season (34-21), but have only a goal to speak for their attacking dominance. Against Villa, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott squandered ideal chances in the first and second halves, respectively. In the minutes following his Everton debut, Alex Iwobi was the closest to converting for the visitors, hitting the post in the closing minutes of the match.

Silva, as critical as ever before, acknowledges that despite his team succeeding when it comes to creating chances, they desperately need to move the ball past the white line.

“The most difficult thing is to create and when you do you have to put the ball in the net,” the 42-year-old added. “It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score and of course we should score more. Against Palace we created lots of chances to score and didn’t and again today.”

With a challenging bout against Wolves at Goodison Park next on the schedule, the Portuguese will certainly look to tinker his attack to improve the team’s poor conversion rate. Despite falling to score 10 yards in, Iwobi contributed positively for Everton at Villa Park. Moise Kean, still adjusting to the rigors of the league, can be another prudent option to consider.

Luckily, Everton have time – and a match against Lincoln City midweek – to weigh their options. Silva, as he clearly explained at Villa Park, would want the goals to come in sooner rather than later.

Villa’s Wesley hopes to ‘continue like this’ after scoring first goal

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Anwar El Ghazi was the x-factor Friday night, giving every Aston Villa supporter in attendance at Villa Park the excuse to roar at the top of their lungs following his composed finish in the dying seconds of stoppage time.

But about an hour earlier, Villa’s $28-million striker, Wesley, gave the same supporters a reason to believe that they had a chance against Everton, and, most importantly, that Villa made the right decision in securing his signature just months ago.

[ MORE: Recap | Highlights ]

With a timely run and a well-paced strike, the Brazilian opened his Premier League and Aston Villa account. Something manager Dean Smith knew was bound to happen. From the BBC:

“Wesley is not rewarding me but this performance was very good tonight. I believe in him, I have watched him for a while at Club Bruges, playing in the Champions League so I know the calibre of player we were bringing in. You can’t judge someone after two games.”

Prior to Friday, Wesley was less effective than expected in the claret and blue, recording only two shots on target in his first 164 minutes in the league. Smith was swarmed with questions about the striker’s ineffectiveness as the pressure continued to pile on.

Against Everton, however, with the Villa struggling to keep possession and most playing through frenetic counter attacks, the 22-year-old made the most out of the small number of chances he saw. 21 minutes in, he scored. A couple of minutes later – if it wasn’t for a superb last-second tackle from Everton’s Yerry Mina – the Brazilian would have had a brace.

When he wasn’t aiming for goal, the striker was effectively displacing Everton’s back four with his clever runs and brawny hold-up play. One could tell that the Brazilian was playing the game to his strengths, in peace.

“I am very happy tonight, what a performance from the team,” Wesley said after the match. “We worked hard, played very well and we hope to continue like this week by week then we will see what happens.

“The manager knows me, he sees me everyday working hard and the supporters know me too. I keep calm, I know my qualities and today you saw that I can do.

“I hope to continue like this, the last two games were very difficult but now I have to help my team with goals.”

Time will tell if Wesley will continue on the same path, but after a slow start, its quite crystal clear that everyone at Aston Villa is behind the Brazilian striker.

Late El Ghazi goal seals Aston Villa victory over Everton

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With three points under their belt and Villa Park rocking like never before, it now feels like Aston Villa are finally back in the Premier League.

Pinned back the majority of the second half, trying to conserve a 1-0 lead, Anwar El Ghazi‘s last-gasp goal sealed the deal for Villa, edging Everton 2-0 on Friday.

Wesley‘s cathartic welcome to the Premier League 21 minutes in gave Dean Smith‘s side the room to breathe, despite being behind the ball the majority of the match.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]


Four things we learned

1. Certainly not the case last time they featured in the Premier League, Villa now have the luxury of boasting game-changing choices off the bench like El Ghazi, who can come in and finish things off.

2. Three matches in, and the Toffees’ glaring void is a clinical finisher up top. They’ll need to find a solution, sooner rather than later.

3.  In the 30-minute cameo, Alex Iwobi displayed that he can turn out to be a difference-maker for Everton this season, if utilized properly.

4. On a good night, there aren’t many stadiums that roar louder than Villa Park.

Man of the Match


Jota, positive for 77 minutes on the right side of the midfield, combined time and time again with Villa right back Frederic Guilbert for the greater good of creating energetic counters. The Spaniard’s first assist of the season came in similar fashion, when Wesley finished off his precise through ball.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Everton, like in the first half, imposed themselves on the home side, dominating control of the ball. A lack of fishing and creativity in the final third, however, complicated things for Marco Silva‘s side. As the clocked ticked, the ingenuity was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after coming on, Iwobi put forward the clearest chance Everton had experienced all night. The substitute’s shot, though, struck post, denying any chances of a brilliant debut by the former Arsenal man.

Villa continued to sit back with its four-man backline and Douglas Luiz right above as the No. 6, while remaining attentive on when to spring forward and take advantage of an unbalanced Everton.

El Ghazi surprised many, riffling a shot from 25 yards out. Pickford, vigilant as ever before, calmly blocked it out of danger.

Right before stoppage time, the Toffees were a couple of feet from walking away from Villa Park with a vital point. Theo Wolcott, however, failed to keep his strike leveled, skying the ball well over the bar.

Just minutes later, substitute El-Ghazi showed those watching how to finish, leading Villa to their first Premier League win since 2016.

AT HALF: Wesley scores first goal for Aston Villa

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With pressure certainly on, Wesley scored his first Premier League goal, which has Aston Villa 45 minutes out of their first points since their return to the big stage.

Following a sublime through ball from Jota, the Brazilian didn’t shy away from slotting the ball past Jordan Pickford and into the back of the net.

[ STREAM: Aston Villa – Everton ]

Such timely run and clinical finish showcased by the 22-year-old put into perspective why Villa were willing to shell out $28 million for the striker this summer.

Welcome to the Premier League, Wesley.