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Forum Enlightens China's Football Reform
"Instead of merely scouting promising boys from certain football schools and clubs, if one day China pays more attention to those children playing football in the streets and lanes, then China's success in football will be just round the corner," said Dr. Rogan Taylor, director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool.
Taylor made this remark at the Shanghai Football Forum 2003, which was held Sept. 6-8 in Shanghai. With the launch of the China Super League (CSL) in 2004, this seminar has not only produced a favorable atmosphere for international communication and exchange of experience about professional football, but provided an opportunity for Chinese football clubs to learn more advanced knowledge and effective skills required for success in all aspects of football management.
Youth training
As early as the 1980s, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, "Football sports should lay stress on the training of children." This idea has been convincingly born out by the Ajax Football Club (FC)'s practice. As a prestigious football club in the Netherlands, Ajax has turned "training reserves" into its creed. In prolonged practice, a whole set of programs for the selection and training of teenagers has been developed in the club.
For instance, in each match season Ajax has at least two "draft days." All candidates must be 8-13 years old. Qualified boys are grouped according to their age, receiving training with different aims.
Currently, there exist 37 professional football clubs in the Netherlands, each having its own juvenile football school. All 3,500 amateur clubs in that country also have their youth departments in charge of the training of teenagers, and nearly every week a youth football game will be arranged.
"Without a good plan to train athletes, a sports event is sure to die; unable to have players of different ages trained, a club will come to a dead end," Jan Pruijn, the International Youth Development Manager at Ajax FC, said at the forum.
Britain, with a 120-year history of professional football, has always attached great importance to mass participation in football. China's football level has remained low for years. In Taylor's opinion, the crux of the matter lies in the fact that in China, "football is only popular at the national team's level, i.e. football fans have felt interested in nothing else but the national team's matches." Therefore, at the forum Taylor emphasized repeatedly the importance of a "grassroots program," urging Chinese clubs to promote mass participation in football.
"Many lawns should be transformed into football fields," said Rowan Simons, chairman of Amateur Football Holdings Limited (AFH). AFH is a company that manages international investment into China's grassroots football sector. "In recent years a large number of lawns have been built in China's cities, just for the appreciation of visitors. This is waste of resources," Simons claimed. "At least many should be rebuilt so that children are able to play football on them. In Beijing we have just reconstructed a land discarded for over 20 years into a lawn football field."
Drawing on experience of Japan's football reform
Eleven years ago, the Japan Football League (J-League) was founded, marking the beginning of football professionalism in that country. Less than a year later, China, whose football was at a higher level compared with Japan then, took the same path of football reform. In the 2002 World Cup finals Japan met with notable success by qualifying for the knockout rounds, while China awkwardly lost all its matches in the group round-robin without scoring a single goal. Obviously, China has fallen far behind Japan at least in its national team's performance.
"Over the past ten years, what on earth happened to Japan's football?" Nobuyoki Kotake asked proudly in his opening speech at the forum. By reviewing Japan's football reform, Kotake, one of the founders of J-League, provided rich experience in football professionalism which can be drawn on by his Chinese colleagues.
According to Kotake, first of all, in the very beginning, J-League took into consideration the interests of both professional players and football clubs. Thus it's possible to create a win-win situation. A democratic atmosphere has ensured the execution of every order issued by J-League without fail.
By comparison, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has ignored the interests of clubs. In addition, policies made by CFA have been subjected to frequent changes, which has not only harmed the authority of CFA but put the league matches into disorder.
Secondly, J-League didn't rely merely on well-known engaged foreign players to increase the attraction of football matches; actually, they've focused on the training of Japanese ace players. A decade's painstaking efforts by J-League have produced a number of football stars, including Hidetoshi Nakata currently playing for Italy's AC Parma, and Junichi Inamoto shining in the World Cup finals last year.
Besides, once each year's league football matches end, J-League will call as many delegates as possible together for an annual meeting to tackle problems arising in the matches in a down-to-earth manner.
To make a striking contrast, in spite of endless documents and meetings, sincere self-criticism has been lacking in China's football that was once harassed by bribed referees' "black whistle" and rigged games.
Thirdly, in Chinese football circles, the CFA is all bark and no bite in the call for a limit to players' wages. However, in Japan, a clear and definite contract of employment has brought players' wages under strict control from the very beginning. According to the contract, the basic salary makes up 70 percent and an appearance fee 30 percent of a player's total income.
"For the express purpose of drawing up the contract, we invited back a Japanese player who played in Germany then, and asked for his advice on what kind of agreement a professional player is supposed to sign," Kotake said.
A couple of years later, to check the tendency that players' salaries were on the increase, J-League further divided the contract of employment into three kinds, targeting top players, bench players and newly-recruited players respectively. For these three groups of players, their yearly pay has been capped in their corresponding contracts.
"As a result of this new method, players will no more make a rush for well-paying clubs. For instance, a player who just graduated from high school would rather stay in a relatively weak team so as to possibly become a top player sooner. In this way, football clubs are able to operate steadily; meanwhile those players have more choices than before," Kotake said.
Serious dearth of professional personnel
Since the China Super League (CSL) is to be launched in 2004, many small and medium-sized football clubs with limited funding feel perplexed by the uncertainties of the future.
Nonetheless, it doesn't matter if a club is on a small scale; the crux of the matter lies in whether or not the club has an all-round manager, foreign experts claimed at the forum.
KAA Gent is a small-scaled football club in Belgium, a country with a population of merely 9 million. With a total of nine permanent office workers, this club makes a profit of around 6.5 million euros each year. The recipe for KAA Gent's success is that it has an all-round general manager, Michel Louwagie.
In Louwagie's opinion, a successful football club's manager must possess the following abilities: financially, good at budget making; in terms of sports, familiar with training method and technically able to analyse matches; "diplomatically" skilful at negotiating players, coaches, agents and sponsors, and so on.
In a small club, the manager also has to make decisions on market policies, Louwagie said. In addition, the manager must have a good command of managerial strategies, coordinating the work of different departments.
Seeing that former players usually hold the post of General Manager of most football clubs in China today, Louwagie pointed out that it's very dangerous. "Personally, I am not a football player. I studied physical education at the University of Ghent. It's necessary for a manager to master skills required in different fields," Louwagie said.
In the final analysis, as far as a football club is concerned, the way to survive is a matter of recruiting talent. Healthy and successful league matches are operated by experts in specific fields including finance, marketing and administration. It has been predicted that at least 250 such professionals are necessary in the future CSL football matches.
"How many professional football managers are there in China?" asked Maurice Watkins, director of Manchester United FC Ltd, at the forum. Indeed, at present mainly two kinds of people are engaged in football management, i.e. former players and investors. People cannot but ask: if this state of affairs lasts any longer, how will Chinese football clubs survive?
(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, September 20, 2003)

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