Editor’s Note: Zhang Lu is a football person to his core. Few have been as active as he has at every level, in every job in China. He’s been a player, a teacher, a club official, a CFA bigwig, and a commentator among other duties. He is an impressive figure and this article shows it. Though it is a little dated (the article was originally published in 2017), the ideas from it regularly get talked about and this article constantly is given a new life to this day. Our translation is the first time this has been released in its entirety in English.
The reader is left with plenty of questions from Zhang’s article. The system of school-academy-professional has never really been changed in China, with talent decisions almost universally made from a very young age. Also, with the importance of education in China, how can a balance be found for both school and football. While Zhang acknowledges there was a boom in the early days of professional football with excitement peaked, what will cause that level of excitement to return? And while the “School Football” program Zhang praises has gotten more young people playing, what good is it if the level of coaching is often subpar?
These are just some of the questions that Zhang’s article had me considering, however it will certainly lead you to think more about where the game is & where it has failed.
I always tell people: China doesn’t have football talent. That’s because nobody plays it in our primary schools.
That raises questions: at what point did everyone stop playing football? Why does nobody play? Who caused this?
Actually, there were quite a few people playing football when I was young. I played with my friends in the yard, a small area under the wall with bricks as goalposts, we could play for hours on end. Later we’d play during any breaks we got at school, even organizing a team in our class. There were a few who didn’t make the cut and were unhappy so we decided to organize a second team. We’d play against other classes in an intra-school league. Eventually the school formed its own team, I served as the goalkeeper and we would train once a week.
In 1964 Beijing started to organize a league for primary schools. We were out after only two games. Bayi Primary won the title that year and Zixin Road Primary were the runners-up. Wang Yujiang from Zixin Road was the player of the tournament and later he changed his name to Li Lianjian and ended up as the principal of Sangao Football Academy, which is attached to Renmin University Middle School.
After finishing primary school, I got into Xiannongtan Sports Academy and started semi-professional training. We trained two or three times a week after school and we play a 90-minute game on Sundays. Li Lianjian and Feng Jianming, who became Head of School Football at CFA, were my class/team-mates.
Having trained at the academy for two years, I got into Shaanxi and Beijing Football teams, and thus became a professional. There was a clear path from school football to an academy and ultimately into the professional ranks if you could keep developing and I had the privilege of going through the whole process.
During the Cultural Revolution, many industries were affected but sports academies flourished. Parents were desperate to keep their kids from being “sent down” to the countryside and one of the few paths to remaining in the city was to be successful in a sports academy and be chosen by a pro team. Talent was nurtured by desperation.
Back then, the national team was in a relatively good position in Asia and barely missed World Cup qualification. In 1976 our slogan was to “get out of Asia in 15 years.” There were a lot of players looking to contribute to this goal, however disappointment struck in 1982 with a loss to New Zealand and again in 1985.
What is the way out for Chinese football? Where is the hope? This was the question everyone was mulling over.
In 1986, the first U-16 World Cup was held in Beijing. Around that time comrade Deng Xiaoping made the pronouncement that “Chinese football must focus on kids in order to catch up.” For those involved in grassroots football, this really created a lot of excitement – I am not flattering, it was how I truly felt at the time.
Years before, back in 1978, I got the chance to visit Japan as part of the Beijing football team. We played the Japanese national team twice and the youth team once. Back then Japanese football even had some reverence for Chinese football.
What impressed me was in Yokohama, before we played Japan’s youth team, two primary schools played a game as a warm-up: everything they had was high-end, the uniforms, boots, lighting, grass, tactics – it all had me speechless. This was easily two levels above conditions at our primary schools!
I told Wei Ming, who was Beijing Sports Bureau Director and led the visiting team, “we will be in big trouble when these kids reach the senior squad.”
Direct Wei, on the other hand, was quite optimistic, stating “Our kids are not bad!”
I was struck with an impending sense of crisis.
After Comrade Xiaoping pronouncement on youth football, we were ready for something big.
Under the aegis of the Association of Beijing Sports Science, I organized football coaches for Beijing academies, universities, middle and primary schools and helped them to organize tournaments, set up school teams, write training syllabi, conduct testing, create exam standards – a wide variety of tasks.
I went to all the primary schools that were involved in football and I knew all the football teachers and coaches. By 1988, we put together a solid backbone through the “primary school-academy-professional team” path network.
On that basis and on our own initiative, we set up the “Committee of Beijing Professional Football Coaches,” comprising almost all the coaches from every level. This was done purely on our own, there was no oversight and there was no money, it was purely our enthusiasm driving things in Beijing.
The Beijing Sports Bureau viewed our initiative positively and even asked other sports to learn from our football setup, they also brought the professional team into our system. At the same time, management changed from horizontal to vertical, every sport set up a technical leadership group led by the professional coaches and our little group was absorbed into the system. Cheng Wenkuan, the manager of the Beijing football club, was the leader and myself and Li Zhunan, from the Amateur Sports Academy, were the deputies.
The success of youth football is what drove this significant organizational change in the Sports Bureau.
As we basked in this glory, by the end of 1988 we started realizing something strange, why where there fewer and fewer kids playing football?
In 1989, we wanted to conduct research on this and asked for money from the CFA, through the General Administration of Sports. We recruited An Tieshan from Beijing Sports College as our lead research and studied the situation in 24 cities for a year, the results were published in Sports Science in 1992.
The results were jaw dropping, by the end of 1990, there were only 10,000 kids between the ages of 7 and 16 playing football. Dalian had the most with 2,000 kids while Beijing and Shanghai had 1,000 each. Other major cities only had a few hundred, while some had zero playing organized football.
This was supposed to be the foundation upon which Chinese football was built.
At every opportunity, I tried to publicize this crisis, but everyone was focused on the nascent professional football league, youth football was pushed by the wayside.
In 1996 I got back into football as I was appointed GM of Beijing Guoan and the first important move I made was setting up a youth system at the club.
At the time Guoan only had a senior team, but we set up a youth team and three schools in less than a year. Due to all the hype around professional football at the time, many parents wanted their kids in football and earning the big bucks. Semi-professional academies were flourishing in Beijing. In 1998, there were 11 football schools attached to Guoan with over a thousand students, none of the schools were paid for by the club and all made money.
I thought the Beijing Guoan name was such a great draw, so I tried to do a joint recruitment program with the schools in 2000. I was optimistic that we’d have thousands of students applying, but only a little over 300 came out, and of those only around 100 were competent. The football schools slowly started losing business and folding, Guoan was down to only 4.
Chinese football ran out of people again.
I was personally involved in these two cycles of success and failure of Chinese youth football. We tried getting things to the peak of the mountain, but they quickly dropped to the abyss. We knew there was a problem, but we didn’t know the cause or how to solve it until 2014.
Starting from 1986 and 1997, we had two very similar cycles.
Speaking from a macro level, we knew we just focused on levelling up rather than expanding out, focusing on the moment but not thinking long-term.
In 2014, the central government finally started to focus on school football. I talked to many people, submitted formal proposals and met with officials at all levels and it was only through these conversations that I realized what went wrong in the past.
Around 1983, the General Administration of Sports, the Ministry of Education, and the Party Youth League set up three tournaments, each for primary, junior middle, and senior middle schools. In these tournaments the district winners would advance to a citywide tournament and then the winners of that would move on to the provincial competition, it seemed an ideal pyramid for cultivating talent.
Schools were excited about the competition and their teams trained really hard, many would train five or six days a week, up to three hours each time. Some even did two-a-day practices, some schools even promoted a “three concentrates” itinerary, focused on eating well, studying, and training. Schools tried to hire the best coaches, usually retired professionals or academy coaches.
But after a few years problems started to emerge when the first group started graduating and parents realized that at each school maybe only one, or at most two, players could make the grade and move on into a semi-professional academy, not even considering those who could go on to play professionally. Those that participated in the football program tended not to study as much, so they faced two paths, academic and athletic, that were both equally impossible for their future.
But were the kids to blame? They had too much training to do their homework! The coaches were always keen to talk parents into believing in their child’s great prospects. The parents had their doubts, but the kids were already dreaming of being a football star! They had long been distracted by the future to study. The children who got ‘three concentrates’ treatment did even poorer – they were left at school to be supervised by nobody and learned to drink, smoke, and fight. They became illiterate hooligans.
If the first year was an outlier, by the end of the second year parents had seen through it. Teachers were against football because it affected their results and principals started to be against it too because the teams were causing countless problems, by the third year, nobody wanted to be involved.
Moreover, every school only has one playground, if every afternoon the football team occupied it, nobody else could use it, causing other students and parents to get upset.
This was a natural result of trying to build a strong school team, results mattered most, so schools would use their limited resources, especially playgrounds, to serve the 20 students of the football team, alienating the other thousands of students.
Even then, the short-termism in selection and training was bound to produce students that were not very bright both in academic and character terms. They were hated by both parents and the schools.
We always blamed schools and parents for not being supportive enough. But would we want our own kids to participate in such a scheme? The only people to blame were ourselves, we didn’t have things going in the right direction. I want this to serve as a warning to not repeat our mistakes. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of schools who are willing to make these same mistakes all over again.
So, I must urge everyone, avoid primary school teams or else the program will be dead within three years.
A school team should be about improving the players, but even then things still turned out badly because we were so bad at selecting the right players to be in the teams.
Normally you set up a school team starting from 7- and 8-year-olds, how do you know if anyone is any good. Coaches only have subjective impressions that seal everyone’s fate. If you don’t get picked at this point, you’ll never be picked.
In order to get good results, the school teams train hard, almost as hard as adult teams, leading to injuries and psychological issues as well, wasting a lot of good young talent.
Too many coaches are also too strict with their players, getting away with verbal and even physical abuse, many players will leave because of it, so how many are left in the end? And what did they really get out of the training?
Because training is so focused on the tournament instead of regular games and since everyone is so bad at selecting the right players, the end result is lack of a fair competition. The schools with the best facilities and coaches siphon off all the best players.
Therefore, in each district there is only one or two schools that is any good and most of the others will get frustrated and stop their programs, leaving only a few teams left in the city after a few years. As teams fold across the city, there is no money being put into football, so even the “good” school teams start to struggle.
Doesn’t the government care? Their focus is on getting results as quickly as possible so that they can obtain a promotion, they’re more than willing to concentrate the top players at only a few schools.
Yet this doesn’t guarantee success because so often there is an issue of age cheating.
Everyone knows a year makes a huge difference when dealing with young kids, so the phenomenon is incredibly serious. In the beginning people may change ages by only a year or so, but then they get daring and it can go up to four years sometimes. The kids with real talent get eliminated due to the older kids.
So we could barely expect any talent to be left. This is also the reason why the youth national team always performs much better than the senior squad.
I think the CFA is absolutely responsible for this, but its hard for them as everything they’ve tried – using China’s household registration documents, birth certificates, even bone aging – always gets gamed.
It’s really top down cheating, collusion across the board. Parents, sports academies, schools, local sports bureaus, education authorities, police, teachers, coaches, government officials of all levels were all in on it – modifying bone age results, modifying household registrations, modifying birth certificates. They are the ones who taught these young kids how to lie.
It is more than a few destroyed football talents. There is no wonder ten years later we had all kinds of gambling and collusion problems in Chines football. Players receive outside money without really thinking if they should. This is the eduction they received while younger.
And this is the result of our expectation of building a solid foundation, the end result was that we destroyed things, twice! Both times it only took a few years for things to get turned around and success to turn to failure.
Why do I spend so much time looking back? It’s because there are a lot of people prepared to spend a lot of money repeating these mistakes of the past. I want to avoid another of these three year cycles that will keep Chinese football in decline, we need real reforms that have things going in the right direction.