Cameron Wilson, a journalist by trade, is the Shanghai-based Founding Editor of WildEastFootball, a blog about Chinese football written in English. He has previously been interviewed by the likes of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Daily Telegraph, and others on the topic of football in China, quickly making him one of the go-to people for insights on the sport here.
In this brief question and answer session with The Nanfang, Cameron shares some of his observations on the state of Chinese football following the historic Guangzhou Evergrande win over FC Seoul at the Asian Champion’s League final last week, and makes some interesting observations on the future of the sport.
Cameron, thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts with readers of The Nanfang. I’d like to start broadly by asking what you think is the significance of the Evergrande win for the future of Chinese football?
Guangzhou Evergrande’s Asian Champions League victory is a big morale booster for China and is very significant because it proves what can be done with football in China with big investment in playing staff and top coaches like Lippi who bring much needed professionalism to coaching and other aspects of football.
The downside is that it’s far too early to tell if there will be any lasting effects and questions exist over how sustainable Evergrande’s model is. It’s clear they make a loss from their football side, so what happens if they pull out in a few years when owning a football club no longer suits them?
What obstacles still stand between China and its path to becoming a serious player on the world football stage?
The obstacles to China becoming a serious player on the international stage are many. Corruption is rife in all aspects of Chinese society and football can never fully escape from this so the most talented players may never make it or, more importantly, be allowed to make it if parents see the game as something they don’t want their kids involved in.
The lack of kids playing is probably the biggest issue. A lack of a creative and individualistic mindset instilled in kids by the Chinese education system is another problem preventing China from producing creative players who make the difference between a solid and fit well-drilled team to one that has the spark necessary to beat challenging opponents.
You’re based in Shanghai. How did you gauge the reaction to the Evergrande win there?
A lot of Shanghai Shenhua fans were ambivalent to their victory. “I’m from Shanghai, I only love Shenhua,” was a typical kind of response, along with a lot of scoffing about the amount of money Evergrande spent. It’s certainly not everyone behind “China Evergrande” as the media were putting it. But that’s obvious when you think about it.
I think the hardcore fans of Shanghai Shenhua and other clubs in other Chinese cities aren’t that bothered about Guangzhou’s victory, but casual fans and people who don’t normally go anywhere near a Chinese football stadium are much more likely to be right behind it no matter where they are based.
Since the win, there have been calls for Lippi to take reigns of the Chinese national team. I wonder if you had heard about that, and what your reasoning would be for or against him eventually going down that road?
There are very strong rumours in the Chinese press that Lippi is their first choice to take over the national team. He is aparently going to take over in 2014 which would mean the end of next season. But China face some really crucial qualifiers for the Asian Cup in the coming week which will go a long way to deciding if they qualify for the tournament which is in Australia in 2015.
So it’s a complicated situation at present. If China doesn’t make it to the Asian Cup there will be no tournament to aim for until Russia 2018 World Cup which is an awful long way off at present. Lippi taking over the national team would be a great move, the question would be could he leave a permanent legacy of improvement in the national side so that China wouldn’t need to continually splash out on big name coaches.
You said one of the biggest obstacles for the future of Chinese football is the lack of children playing it. Do you think the growing profile of Evergrande can help rectify this on a national level, or will it take more? What, in your mind, is the solution to this very serious problem for the sport going forward?
Evergrande’s victory is definitely a positive development in terms of convincing the public at large that Chinese football isn’t the cesspit of embarrassment, under-achievement, corruption, scandal and poor playing standards that it’s erroneously believed to be. It has given the game a very rare and much-needed feel good factor and it’s a timely reminder of just how powerful a sport football is when it comes to inspiring passion and a sense of shared victory on a large scale, especially in a country like China.
But this is just one step in the right direction, there are numerous pitfalls awaiting Chinese football just around the corner. Another big scandal, another result like the excruciatingly embarrassing 5-1 defeat to lowly Thailand, and Evergrande’s achievement will be badly undermined. So this great achievement has to be learned from and held up as an example of what can be achieved.
There are concerns about Evergrande’s long term commitment to the game, but for now the victory should be celebrated for what it is and for the Chinese football world to enjoy the bit of face it’s given them in the hope that it will inspire a general raising of standards across the board.
As for the solution of how to get more kids involved, there really is no simple or easy way and there are a lot of issues to be faced which Guangzhou Evergrande’s victory will not change. The central reason, and I’ve made this point before a few times but it’s worth repeating, is that Chinese football is a microcosm of Chinese society.
As long as there is corruption, a lack of rule of law, a lack of faith in the rule of law and a general lack of trust except within ones own immediate clan in the wider society, football cannot ever fully escape these phenomena. So the Chinese football authorities need to focus strongly on factors which are under their control, such as doing more to encourage all Chinese league clubs to have a proper youth system (for example, Shanghai Shenhua has no youth side).
They also need to do more to make the CSL more appealing to fans, such as making it as hard as possible for clubs to relocate to other cities and thus prevent the development of community-focused football culture.
They need to learn that football is a sport which is best developed from the bottom up – a concept in top-heavy China the powers-that-be obviously find hard to grasp. Halting the league for weeks on end so the national team can train is counter-productive and is not something any successful football nations do. It impacts too heavily on the momentum of the vast majority of other players in the league who are not in the national team but still need to play regularly to keep their development.
Without a strong league for China’s best talents to develop in, there can be no strong national team. South Korean and Japan, two countries whom China is so fond of comparing itself to learned this long ago, both countries have strong domestic leagues and they are now World Cup regulars.
These are just some of the issues, generally it tends to come down to parental influence and Chinese football faces a tough task convincing people that football is worthy pastime for kids when there is so much pressure to do well at school, get a good job and look after the parents. That is the bottom line in China and a tough reality for football to deal with.
On behalf of the team at The Nanfang, I thank Cameron for his time and insights on the topic of football in China. You can contact him directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below, and be sure to check out WildEastFootball to get the latest on the sport here from Cameron and his dedicated team.
Photo credit: The Telegraph