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“Little Messi” is like millions of young boys around the world. Kaisar Tursun is 12 and a member of the Uighur minority from Xinjiang province in northwest China. He loves to play football and dreams of playing in the World Cup. “I want to win glory for China, for my motherland and for the Uighurs,” he says with steely determination.
Kaisar has reason to be confident. As one of 2,300 students at an ambitious and massive football school in the southern province of Guangdong, he is closer than most boys his age to having a shot.
Evergrande International Football School lives up to its name. With clock towers, medieval turrets and spires, it looks like JK Rowling and Walt Disney have built a magical castle in rural Guangdong. At night, the turrets are illuminated in vivid blue or red – the school colours – adding to the surreal spectacle.
“Our school looks a bit like Hogwarts . . . the main building looks like the tower in Harry Potter,” says Zhang Linyan, 12, a star player from Sichuan who plays for China’s female U-14 national team.
With its clean air, you forget that Evergrande is only 75km from Guangzhou, the heavily polluted capital of Guangdong. But the most impressive thing is its size. The complex has 50 football pitches and is building 30 more. Not only is it China’s largest academy dedicated to the sport but it is almost certainly the biggest in the world. “We are part of Xi Jinping’s dream,” jokes Deng Sheng, a school official, referring to China’s president.
Even in China, where construction reaches unfathomable levels, the scale is incredible. On a tour of the 167-acre grounds, Liu Jiangnan, the principal, proclaims: “It is number one in the world.” Centred around a big stadium, the campus has a cavernous movie auditorium, an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts and ping-pong tables, six canteens, a gym, a library and an enormous computer room. European-style street lamps line the paths, while the entrance is adorned with a giant replica of the World Cup.
“The dimensions of the complex are unparalleled. No one else has developed a project of this magnitude,” says Miguel Angel, a former Real Madrid goalkeeper whose son is a coach at Evergrande.
Chen Wudi, a football fan from Hubei province who moved nearby to support his grandson Chen Mengze, says his generation could never have imagined a school like Evergrande, adding that even Mao Zedong would have been impressed. “Chairman Mao would be as delighted as me with this environment,” he says. “He loved sports and exercise as a way for the people to build up their strength. We used to be called the ‘sick man of Asia’. After Mao founded the People’s Republic of China, he had to boost the strength of the people.”
Evergrande is both another vivid example of how China has risen in once unimaginable ways and a marker of unfulfilled ambition. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympics, China topped the gold medal table. In 2010, it overtook Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy, and recently it became only the third country to put a spacecraft on the moon. But one success has eluded the nation: it has never come close to winning the World Cup, the biggest international trophy in sport. Its football team is ranked 92nd in the world, sandwiched between lowly New Zealand and Estonia, and way behind Japan and South Korea. Evergrande wants to change those fortunes. Driving around the campus in a golf cart with Liu, his words are drowned out by loud shrieks of “hao qiu” (“good ball”) from the 150 coaches running the Saturday matches.
The school is the brainchild of Xu Jiayin, a property tycoon and China’s 10th-richest man, estimated to be worth more than $6bn. It grew out of an investment Xu made in 2010 when he bought a struggling professional team in Guangzhou. Xu turned round the team’s fortunes by hiring foreign players. But Xu’s biggest catch – at a reported annual salary of €10m – was Marcello Lippi, the Italian who coached his national team to World Cup victory in 2006.
The investment has paid off. The club has won the Chinese Super League three years running and just became the first Chinese team in 23 years to win the Asian Champions League.
Evergrande Group, Xu’s company, is one of many property developers that have bought teams, using the wealth generated from China’s construction boom. Guangzhou R&F, also owned by a property firm, last year hired the former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson as its coach. It too has opened a small football school, in partnership with Chelsea football club. Other teams, such as Shanghai Shenhua, have had stars such as former Chelsea players Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka on their books.
But while Guangzhou Evergrande has benefited hugely from its foreign players, Xu has a different vision for its future, which is where the school comes into the equation. “Our long-term strategy is to use teenagers to turn Evergrande into a team of only domestic players in eight to 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world,” he said when the school opened in 2012. “[Xu’s] ambition is to become the hero of the Chinese people,” says Liu. “He knows it requires a big reserve of talented young players.”
For those players, the week starts at 7am every Monday. On one crisp morning, 2,200 boys and 100 girls, aged nine to 16, stream into the stadium for a pep talk wearing the red Evergrande colours.
“Hola,” a boy shouts in my direction as he enters the stadium. Another does the same, and another. The reason for the unusual blast of Spanish soon becomes apparent. The biggest foreign influence on their lives is 22 Spanish coaches – plus an Argentine and a Portuguese – attached to a coaching programme administered by Real Madrid as part of a multimillion-euro deal. “When we leave the school in a few years, all the players will speak Spanish but . . . we will have only managed some words in Chinese,” jokes Guillermo Trama, 37, the Argentine coach who played professionally in Spain.
Trama and Fernando Sanchez, 42, a former Spanish national team player who is Evergrande’s head coach, are just one part of this growing push to help China get better at football.
There are many theories as to why China has not done well: it has traditionally focused on elite athletes and failed to create a grassroots base; parents see school football as a distraction from studies; sports authorities focus on individual rather than team sports; and China has not weaned itself off its Soviet-style sports development system.
Evergrande has a mixture of players with little training, and a few stars such as Linyan. But Trama says even most of the strongest players lack something critical. “The time to pass, when to shoot, when to run . . . this is the part when the Chinese players . . . take a wrong decision.” Sanchez adds that the foreign coaches have to both change the mentality of the players and help retrain many of the Chinese coaches, who teach football in a very different way to Europeans. “When we arrived, we found that the Chinese coaches were training the kids in a military way,” he says.
Trama heads across to one of the football fields to coach a group of talented 12-year-olds that includes Little Messi and a promising Chinese player called Wang Bo, who was born and raised in Japan. When asked which team they support, most shout “Ba Sa” – Chinese for Barcelona – prompting their Real Madrid-sponsored coaches to chase them in mock anger.
Bo says the Evergrande approach is strikingly different from his school in Japan. Speaking in Japanese, he says his coach there was very strict. “He hit us in the face, hit our heads with his closed fist and kicked us in our legs,” he says, gesturing with his arms to show me how. “I cried. Lots of kids cried.”
That evening, when I recount the story to Deng, the school’s brand manager, he sighs with relief: “We worried that he was talking about our school.” Liu has no patience with violence, saying some young Chinese coaches have been too influenced by a traditional philosophy that “brilliant students come from strict teachers” and have been too tough as a result. “Punishing kids physically is really bad,” Liu stresses, before adding that he had to dismiss eight coaches and teachers for this reason.
Liu, who is also a vice-chairman of the Chinese Football Association, says that to tackle the poor performance of Chinese football, it is “essential to train more children and teenagers who love football and to find budding talent among them”. He says one difference between Evergrande and other, smaller Chinese football schools is that property tycoon Xu wants to create future stars and boost the number of kids who play the sport for fun.
He says another distinction is that Evergrande puts a lot of emphasis on academic education. Students have four 90-minute football training sessions a week but they spend the rest of their time in classrooms. In one lesson, the students are learning English adjectives with song, dance and lots of sports references. “Yao Ming is a tall, tall boy,” 45 boys and one girl scream in staccato rhythm, referring to China’s most famous sports star, the 7ft 6in former basketball player. “Lippi is a quiet and friendly man.”
While many children come from affluent families, for others Evergrande is an unlikely dream come true. The students are from all over China, except Tibet. Two-thirds pay school fees of Rmb35,000 ($5,800) a year – roughly equal to China’s per capita GDP of $6,000 – while the rest receive scholarships to cover what by Chinese standards is an astronomical sum.
Without help, Linyan, whose father earns about Rmb6,000 a month as a cook, would have no way of attending. Little Messi is a similar case. His father is dead and his mother works as a cleaner. He receives Rmb5,000 from Evergrande and Rmb30,000 from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, a Chinese charity.
Harley Seyedin is president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China; his son Sterling attends the school. He says Evergrande provides an opportunity for all students regardless of financial background. “There are no other options for kids to play. Most schools don’t have fields and are focused on academic programmes,” he says.
With the exception of kids whose parents or grandparents live close to the school, most students only see their families a few times a year, during holidays. This is not unusual in China, where millions of children live with their grandparents while their parents work in other parts of the country. “My mother came to see me for the first time in October, but my father is busy working and has not come,” says Linyan.
Liu says the government is starting to approach football in a new way. Under China’s traditional system, promising athletes were identified by the state at an early age and put through rigorous training regimes. “The old system created Olympic champions but it focused too much on the most talented athletes and neglected the training of all children,” says Liu. “We want good results too, but we also want sport to become more popular . . . We want less talented kids to develop from the new model.”
Chinese football supporters are also delighted that President Xi is a fan. In an unusual move, he displayed his skills during a visit to Ireland in 2012 by kicking a Gaelic football into the air at Croke Park stadium in Dublin. It has also not been lost on China that Fifa, football’s governing body, has identified an ancient Chinese sport called cuju as the precursor to modern football.
Tom Byer is an American hired by the Chinese government to promote grassroots efforts following his success in Japan helping the sport develop. He says China realised in 2009 that it had to create a larger pool of players, and started the China School Football Programme, which gives 2.2 million children three hours of exposure a week. While the programme has spread to more than 5,000 schools, not everyone is optimistic. Yan Qiang, a Chinese journalist who has written several books on football, says it is a “joke” because the annual funding is only about Rmb60m. He also dismisses suggestions that Xi’s love for football will have a big impact. “Now we have a new emperor and the new emperor’s hobby will always be popular. But it doesn’t mean people will really accept football as their way of life,” he says.
The Chinese Football Association says the programme also receives money from local governments and it is talking to the finance ministry about boosting its funds tenfold. While the programme has some critics, its logic – the need to deepen the talent pool – is something few dispute, and why Liu says Evergrande plans to become even bigger. It intends to add 800 students over the next year. It has also signed an agreement with Renmin University of China in Beijing to create a network of schools with another 10,000 students. Liu says it is leaning towards creating 100 smaller branches to maximise its geographic reach.
Xu and his property company are gaining in other ways from the school, which is located in a scenic area with hot springs and green hills. He has built a huge tourist resort and more than 3,200 luxury villas nearby. Some people privately suggest that his property company – and others with football clubs – are engaging in property plays, buying teams to get favours and land from local officials. While Yan, the sports writer, says Evergrande is being developed too quickly, he dismisses those suggestions as conspiracy theory.
Liu says it is too early to talk about success, saying his “one-year-old baby” needs three years before some of its 124 teams rank in the top three in their age groups. But the coaches are confident. “In the Chinese national team . . . in the future we will have some players,” says Trama, before Sanchez injects with a smile, “Not maybe, sure.”
Everyone is sure that at least one student – Zhang Linyan – will be a star, with boys like Little Messi and Wang Bo trying to emulate her. Bo explains that the other kids affectionately call Linyan “hei mei” (“dark little sister”) because of her skin tone. Then he adds proudly: “She is my friend . . . She will be a professional.”
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s South China correspondent.
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu