Soccer schools and boardroom deals: China's play for World Cup glory

Sun Dec 6, 2015 10:59am EST
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By Clare Jim and Adam Jourdan

HONG KONG/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Wang Shijie, 11, is a rising star among the nearly 3,000 students at Guangzhou Evergrande's huge soccer academy in south China. He wants to join the national team and help achieve President Xi Jinping's dream of winning the World Cup.

In schools like this around the country, China is training an army of young players it hopes will help the nation shake off its lowly place in the world's football ladder: 84th out of 209 countries, just above Qatar and below teams like Jordan, Montenegro and Gabon.

"When I join the national team, I will do my best to help China become World Cup champions," Wang, wearing golden-colored boots and a yellow jersey, told Reuters during a break in training at the school that has 50 full-size pitches and coaches flown in from European giant Real Madrid.

Led by Xi, an avid fan, China has clearly made it a goal to become a soccer superpower. A consortium led by state-backed China Media Capital took a $400 million stake last week in the owner of English Premier League champions Manchester City - Beijing's biggest investment in the sport overseas.

The tie-up will help Abu Dhabi-owned City tap the fast-growing sports and entertainment market in the world's most populous nation, and at the same time give China international soccer knowhow, on the field and off.

"The Chinese government wanted to make a statement," said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which brokers deals between Chinese investors and European teams.

Jarvis said he was currently working on six deals with Chinese firms looking to buy into clubs in Europe - including in England, Germany and Spain - and that there would be even bigger Chinese investment in 2016, usually with a China-based soccer school or training base thrown in.

"Pretty much every football club which has some type of deal with the Chinese will have an academy. It's very much Xi's long-term dream of World Cup glory, and building the infrastructure on the ground is exactly what they want."   Continued...

Students warm up before a training session at Evergrande soccer academy in Qingyuan, southern China December 4, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu