Football in China is in a sorry state. The country has qualified only once for the World Cup, in 2002, when it was quickly knocked out without scoring a goal. The main national league has been plagued by corruption, match-fixing scandals and a middling standard of play. But China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has a dream. In 2011, a year before he came to power, he said he wanted China to win the World Cup. As president he has turned that idea into a sporting priority.
Many Chinese clubs have responded by buying foreign talent. They have not always got what they paid for. Early this year Carlos Tevez, a star Argentine striker, left Shanghai Shenhua. He was reportedly paid tens of millions of dollars, but arrived out of shape, scored only four goals and sometimes did not even bother to run during matches. Guangzhou R&F is trying a different approach. “We don’t want to rely on foreign players,” says Nicky Wong, the club’s vice-chairman (though Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swedish former manager of the England team, was head coach in 2013-14 and the current manager is Dragan Stojkovic, a Serb). Instead, it is investing in academies for young players in Guangzhou and other parts of Guangdong province, of which the city is the capital.
Mr Wong cites the example of Japanese clubs, which 20 years ago started a similar effort to end their reliance on foreign players and cultivate local talent. Mr Wong also points to Barcelona. At the peak of its success earlier this decade, he notes, the Spanish club had a high proportion of local players and played a philanthropic role in the local community. “Our long-term plan is to develop that kind of local bond with our fans,” he says. More than one-third of R&F’s current squad are from Guangdong. That is higher than the proportion of home-province players in most other clubs in the Chinese league, says Mr Wong.
Cantonese, a language rooted in Guangdong, is a help. Mr Wong says it is used for most of the club’s business. Fans like to know that many of the players can understand their chants, unlike those foreigners or people from other parts of China. But the comparison with Barcelona might give pause to football officials in Beijing. Regional pride in Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, led to a referendum on independence.