This summer West Bromwich Albion, one of England’s top flight clubs, will travel to Shanghai, a journey that will be a far cry from their last visit to China almost 40 years ago.
In 1978 their journey took 90 hours, starting from London Heathrow Airport on a flight that required stops in Rome, Bahrain, Calcutta to Hong Kong and then a train ride to Guangzhou and another flight to Beijing.
WBA, affectionately known as the Baggies, on May 19, 1978, defeated the Chinese national team 2-0 at Beijing’s Worker’s Stadium in front of a crowd of 89,400, among whom was the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, “the architect” of China’s reform and opening-up drive which has developed China into world’s second biggest economy.
Even then there was a passion in China for football, but only in recent years has there been a revolution in the sport. You can taste it after the Chinese Super League kicked off last weekend at the Worker’s Stadium, the home ground of Beijing Guo’an.
So why is the journey to the country’s emergence as a global superpower in football taking as long as the proverbial slow boat to China?
It’s a question I posed in April 2014 to Stephen Perry just weeks before I left for Brazil to cover the World Cup tournament. Perry is one of Britain’s top experts on China, and the best person to quiz about the future of football in the worlds most populous country. It was, after all, 12 years since the Chinese national team had made its only appearance in the World Cup finals. It seemed that we were floating farther away from the world’s top spiriting spectacle, held every four years.
Perry knew both China and football well. As the managing director of the London Export Corporation, an Anglo-Chinese trading group, Perry was a die-hard Arsenal fan. But it was Perry who brought West Bromwich Albion to China in 1978 to play five matches against the Chinese national team and a number of provincial teams. WBA became the first top league club from western European football to play in China.
I wanted to know how China could have a powerful league and a national team capable of earning a place on the world stage. Perry would be the man with the answers.
“Wrong target,” he said. “The target is to have a major Chinese presence in global football with a plan to ensure that is reflected with a significant presence in China.”
His quick-fire response astonished me. I could not follow what he really meant. I asked what China should learn from the English Premier League and the top leagues of Italy, Spain, Germany and France, regarded as the top five leagues on the planet.
“Again wrong logic,” he answered. “Look at the numbers of Chinese who watch and show an interest in football. I don’t know the number but it is much greater than in Britain and most of Europe put together. But their money and interest goes to existing structures, and is not channeled to change.”
I felt even more puzzled. Almost every top English club, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, boast that their biggest fan bases are in China, something which makes Chinese fans feel so proud. Perry, though, apparently thought it was one of the reasons that made Chinese football sick.
If it’s a sickness, what are his remedies, what medicine would Perry prescribe to cure China’s lack of a healthy football sector?
“Use the Chinese market and Asian brands to develop global football in Asia, and in China,” he said. “China needs to think in terms of much bigger ideas to create the road to being a major football force. The long-term aim should be to take the top players to play for the whole season in Asia. Then a global league would develop that would be similar to American football with continental leagues.”
He went on, “When China carried out research into any major industry it developed short, medium and long-term plans. So in football do not take short-term steps that will result in short-term results. China needs to think much bigger ideas to create the road to being a major soccer force.”
Perry also reminded me that the world’s best players can play anywhere in the world. It all depends upon platforms. So China should have such a platform.
Perry’s vision and strategy as a businessman did not set in until two years later. On April 12, 2016, China’s national drive on football development was endorsed by a newly-issued plan, aiming at entering the football “elite club” and making a realistic goal of China becoming a top class football nation by 2050.
Covering a long-time span of 2016-2050, the 14-page “Medium and Long-Term Plan of Chinese Football Development” outlined a multi-decade vision of the sport’s progress in the country, and set up a number of pragmatic measures to attain the goal.
You can imagine my admiration for Perry when I saw the plan. With the clinical precision of an ace penalty kicker, Perry was right. Now we have got a long-term plan, and the next step is to turn Chinese football into a global force, capable of competing on the world stage and one day lifting that elusive World Cup-winning the trophy.
Since then, China has become a credible topic within the world football market. Chinese super league clubs are spending vast fortunes snapping up superstar players and coaches from Europe and South America.
After his player Oscar left London for Shanghai SIPG for a fee around 60 million pounds, Chelsea manager Antonio Conto commented: “The Chinese market is a danger for all of us. Not only for Chelsea but all the teams in the world.”
In the past few months, Carlos Tevez, Oscar, and Jackson Martinez have arrived, with their golden boots, in China. Diego Costa is also rumored to join in the summer. Luiz Felipe Scolari, Felix Magath, Andre Villas-boas, Manuel Pellegrini and Fabio Cannavaro, who used to grace the big five league’s most famous stadiums, are all currently in charge of Chinese super league sides.
More surprisingly, AC Milan, Inter, Nice, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, have miraculously come under the ownership of Chinese businessmen.
West Bromwich Albion, at the beginning of the current season in the English Premier League side, was bought by Chinese entrepreneur Lai Guochuan.
When I was a six-year-old boy in a small village in east China’s Shandong province, about 500 kilometers from Beijing. I did not know what a football was like. I only ate meat several times a year. There was no electricity and I had never even heard about television, let alone seen a TV set.
Forty years on, my hometown has become one of China’s most prosperous regions. It is a 20-minute drive from my father’s home to the bullet train station. Two and half hours later, I can be sitting in my office in Beijing, with the capital’s notorious traffic permitting.
In 1978 there were only 30,000 vehicles, tractors included, on the roads of Beijing. Now there are six million vehicles in China’s capital city.
Perry has been to China over 200 times since the early 1970s. In our 2014 talk Perry made one of his most startling statements. China, he suggested, had wasted 40 years trying to develop homegrown football talent and clubs. But in the long run, China was the only major country in the world that can rise as a powerful football nation because it has been successful in almost every other sectors during this same period.
“China can do it because China can think strategically and research and plan a set of policies that recognize world power, and how to enter and change it. If it is embraced at the highest level then China can, and will, transform the world of football.”
It is recognized that in the second decade of the 21st century China is already transforming the world of football.