All to play for: China's football revolution
Ben Bland spends a week at Guangzhou R&F football club to see for himself how the sport is growing in China
Filmed and produced by Tom Griggs. Additional production by Sherry Fei Ju. Additional footage by Getty
China is in the midst of a football revolution. The Chinese Super League has grabbed the world's attention by signing top name players on astronomical wages. By acquiring players like these, the CSL's transfer spending rocketed to over half a billion euros this year.
The massive injection of cash was inspired by President Xi Jinping, a football fan who saw a virtuous cycle of health benefits at home and an increase in soft power around the world. But having encouraged the investment boom, the government made an abrupt U-turn earlier this year, calling for a halt to costly foreign transfers because of fears about capital outflows. So what's the reality? Can Chinese football meet Xi Jinping's ambitious goals? Or will it miss the target?
To tell the inside story of China's football revolution, I've come here to Guangzhou R&F, an innovative top flight club that's challenging bigger and richer rivals. With a far smaller budget, their focus is on developing local talent and unearthing rough diamonds in the global transfer market.
If that approach sounds familiar, it's because Serbian coach Dragan Stojkovic is a protege of legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
His style of coaching is very similar to what I'm doing today.
I explain to them also that they should be very patient, because the football is-- you can't change it in one day or one week.
He's instilled his longtime philosophy right through the club, which is known in Chinese as Fuli. The club is taking its future on developing young Chinese players. But the rising interest and the flood of TV money in the CSL today is down to overseas superstars, like Fuli Radio International and league top scorer, Eran Zahavi.
I think in China, everyone wants to play on attack, you know? Everyone play offensive football, then you see many goals.
Zahavi has been a huge success, scoring 27 goals this season. Fuli club captain and Chinese national team defender Jiang Zhipeng says it's the Chinese players who have most to gain from playing against Brazilian superstars, like Oscar and Hulk.
Though the experience of playing with top plaers, we can learn how to defend against the very best players. I really didn't expect that our league would be able to develop to this level, with world stars such as Hulk coming to play in the CSL.
The ultimate goal for China is for the national team to first qualify and then hold its own at the World Cup. But that dream is still a long way off.
Some football experts in Europe continue to deride the CSL as a retirement home for overpaid has beens, but Chinese fans are buying into President Xi's football dream, driving attendances up by 60% since 2010. More people now come to watch the average CSL game than top flight matches in football powerhouses like France, Italy, and the Netherlands.
Situ Jiajin started supporting Fuli when it was founded in 2011. He comes to every home game, as part of a hardcore group of fans.
For me, it's a part of life. Life has its ups and downs, but Fuli is always with me.
Fuli also has an international fan club, somewhat appropriately called the Fuligans.
Never underestimate the Fuli, because we often surprise these bigger sides.
Today, Fuli are taking on one of the financial giants of the CSL, Beijing Guoan. To the delights of the home fans, Eran Zahavi scored the winner after a clinical through ball by Jiang Zhipeng. It's precisely this combination of global superstar and homegrown talent and local passion that Xi Jinping hopes will drive China's football revolution in his quest to project Chinese soft power.
Ben Bland, Financial Times, Guangzhou.