China’s Five Obstacles – 3) Facilities

FacilitiesThe Mumbler looks at facilities in the third of five articles summarising the hurdles China must overcome to reach its ambitious and well-publicized targets within football.

A place to play football is an understandable requirement for any budding footballer. It’s about as essential as students to a teacher, a plane to a pilot, or a reality TV show to a wannabe celebrity.

But the Chinese hopefuls have to settle for limited facilities of generally poor quality and/or at a monopolised price.

Personal experience suggests that the opportunities to kick a football in anger are very much limited in Shanghai’s city centre. The densely populated metropolis hardly lends itself to enabling a group of people comparative to its population playing football regularly, if at all.

For example, it would cost £69 to hire half an 11-a-side artificial pitch for an hour in downtown Shanghai. That’s a Government owned facility of low quality, surrounded by an athletics track often occupied by the general public who prefer to walk both forwards and backwards in a circle instead of along the street.

The cost per match to use a grass pitch of respectable to good quality is as follows:

  • Jinqiao > £230
  • Waigoaqiao and Century Park > £460 – £574 (members) or £690 – £920 (non-members)

The sports field in Jinqiao, Shanghai.

Those are the three pitches often used during the weekends here in Shanghai. Century Park is the venue used by visiting International sides as well as Man Utd when they were preparing for their recent friendly against Borussia Dortmund.

The above prices don’t compare too well to the hiring of a grass pitch in England, which is around £50-60 per match. Just a quarter of Jinqiao’s rate.

A lack of alternatives in Shanghai increases not only the costs to hire but also the usage. Someone trying to overcome that challenge is American, Adam Christy, owner of Grass Masters Shanghai. During his nine years of building, designing and maintaining athletic fields, he’s noticed the city’s pitches are deteriorating much faster than in the U.S. “Fields in Shanghai are used at a rate of 30-40+ hours a week compared to the U.S. which is around half of that.”

China suffer in comparison to the UK when it comes to playing facilities, however, the reverse is true when it comes to accessing all live Premier League matches. China benefits from the business model of ‘charge a lot a little’. The UK experience quite the opposite with Sky TV customers paying an extra £27.50 per month to add the Sky Sports channels. I on the other hand paid just £23 for the entire season last year. That included my choice of every Premier League match, while Chinese apps provided free access to Champions League, Europa League as well as select FA Cup and La Liga matches. It’s hardly surprising that the Chinese are more governed towards being spectators than players.

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy to charge a high rate when the matches are on between 7:45 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. And yes, I am stupid enough to watch football at that time.


Yu Lingxiao and Jason Zhen during the China Football Summit.

During the China Football Summit 2016 (CFS), a panel including Yu Lingxiao of Super Sports and Jason Zhen of IDG Capital stated that the post-90s generation is less inclined to participate in physical activity. Their fondness of the Internet means they prefer to play online instead.

This is very much driven by a combination of the competitive education system and the lack of opportunities to participate in sports both indoors and out. Subsequently, this has led to an increase in child obesity.

According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission
, the figure for obese children and adolescents (ages 6 to 17) in 2002 was 2.1%. In ten years, the report claimed that figure grew to 6.4% and there’s been little sign since of that subsiding.

The article also included the following comments by Liang Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 10.07.30The rapid rise in living standards in the past few decades has contributed to the spike in both obesity and chronic diseases.
  • China has moved from a period of severe food shortages in the 1970s to a time of plenty.
  • Fundamental changes in lifestyles and working practices, such as the popularity of cars and computers result in lower levels of physical activity.
  • A shortage of facilities means students don’t get enough physical exercise at school, which is leading to rising levels of obesity among school-age children.

Those who do participate in physical activity tend to prefer basketball. Why? Because they can play it regularly.

In developed cities, where outdoor space comes at a premium, it is common to see a scattering of basketball courts. At schools, you’re far more likely to see half a dozen basketball courts than you are a football pitch of any description.

Mini basketball court

A local mini-basketball court.

For instance, there’s a public basketball court just down the road from where I live. It’s not a standard sized court, but instead two smaller half-courts put together. This encourages a three-on-three half court game, which means 12 people at one time can use the facility. This is around 15m x 12m (180 sq.m.) whereas a full-size court would be 28m x 15m (420 sq.m.). Meanwhile, the minimum dimensions of a six-a-side football pitch are 20m x 40m (800 sq.m.).

Lv Lei, a planning supervisor for Yutang Sports, revealed during the CFS that there are ten times as many basketball courts as there are football pitches in China.

It’s understandable given that to play basketball you only need a hoop on a wall, of which there are plenty in the concrete jungle that is Shanghai.

Also at the CFS, Professor Liu Dongfeng from Shanghai University stated that London has 25 times more football pitches per 10,000 people than Shanghai. He also said that China plans to increase the number of its football pitches from 10,000 to 70,000 (600% increase) as part of its football reform.

But where will these pitches go? There has been talk of utilising the space currently occupied by near empty golf courses – a sport with a very high status and therefore high costs. But those are primarily on the outskirts of cities.

Century Park

Century Park, where Man Utd have trained.

To play at the weekend on grass pitches, my team and I could travel from 30 minutes to nearly two hours by car, depending on which pitch in addition to the weekend traffic. It’s not quite the same as popping to your local park in England.

Finding space to build football pitches in developed cities is extremely difficult. The dense populations make the financial benefits of building a block of flats too hard to resist. But, the start of a possible solution could be the number of schools specialising in football, should they increase from 5,000 to 20,000 as planned by 2020.

Presumably these schools would have the facilities to play football indoors and/or out which means good news for those students. Then there’s the public. The facilities could be promoted for public use during evenings and weekends at a low price or even free if the local government is feeling particularly generous. The idea that schools and society should share football pitches has been mooted and it makes complete sense. After all, the pitches are unlikely to be occupied during school/work hours if they’re only available to the public.

So while there’s the land to develop these 60,000 extra football pitches, there isn’t necessarily the convenience. And within a culture that demands so much of its students, a place to play football outside of school hours can’t really be anymore than 30 minutes from home.

The infrastructure of China’s developed cities and their resulting populations mean it will never reach its full potential. But when you’re talking about a nation with around 350,000 schools, getting anywhere close should be enough to see China impose itself on the football world. They just need somewhere to play.

China’s Five Obstacles – 2) Education

EducationThe second of five articles summarizing what stands in China’s way of becoming a superpower in football by 2050 focuses on when students can actually play.

China’s vast size and huge population means its potential is far greater than most nations. Currently, football is the industry trying to exploit that potential in the hope of success on the global stage. But while the marketing possibilities for fans are enormous, the playing side of things faces a great challenge that is very much imbedded in the Chinese culture…education.

Simply put, the greater the population the greater the competition. So with regards to academic achievements, one student is always trying to outdo the other and that is often fuelled by immense pressure from the parents.

Subsequently, students will be spending the majority of their ‘free time’ completing homework, attending extra classes or partaking in an activity (music or dance) that their parents may have forced upon them in the first place.

books 2A typical middle school student would spend roughly four hours doing homework after school. That comes after a school day that starts at 8:00 a.m. and finishes at 4:30 a.m. Naturally, playing a sport during the week isn’t even a consideration, let alone a priority of any sorts.

This huge commitment is driven towards admittance into a top university. The quality of the course a student studies at that particular university is irrelevant. It’s still name over substance in China, which differs from the western approach.

To get into the top universities, students attending one of the 333,000 (approx.) state schools must take the Gao Kao exams. These take place on the 7th and 8th of June, leading to parents and grandparents standing outside the school gates, anxiously waiting for their loved ones ahead of an outcome they believe dictates the students’ future careers and success. The many years and countless hours of studying boils down to several tests in Chinese, Maths, English and one other specialist subject chosen by the student.

Special hotel rooms near the schools are available for students so they can spend more time revising and less time traveling back and forth. Parents will often accompany their children or employ Gao Kao nannies (latest bbc link) who specialize in preparation for the exams. To avoid any noise disturbance, roads outside the schools are blocked off during the two days.


Tightened security during the exam days.

Many parents have been planning their child’s route to a top university since pre-school. They essentially work their way back from a top high school in order to know which middle school they are best attending, which leads to the primary school decision and ultimately the desired choice of kindergarten. In addition to this, they would have their child enroll in a number of after school or weekend classes (sometimes in spite of limited finances) to ensure their child is a top academic student.

Clearly it’s a lot of pressure for the students not just because of the volume of competition they’re up against but also the fact that most are from a single child family. The weight of responsibility in addition to the hopes and dreams of their parents, including both sets of grandparents, can sadly lead to fatal consequences with some committing suicide despite being the top of a class of 50.

A 2008 poll of more than 3,800 teenagers in Foshan, Guangdong province, found that 17 percent of female junior high school students had contemplated suicide according to China Daily.

“There is a clear connection with the country’s basic education system,” said Xu Kaiwen, anassociate professor of clinical psychology at Peking University.

There’s a distinct lack of work life balance for these deprived teenagers which can start from as young as kindergarten. I once taught a five-year-old girl who spent 60 hours a week studying. She was a very sweet and well-behaved student, capable of fluently reciting a story in English that would take a few minutes to finish. She was also confident and sociable, but I couldn’t help but fear for her future if this was how her childhood – supposedly the best and certainly the freest period of life – would begin.

It’s not uncommon to see students from middle to high school appearing sapped of all energy and life as they wheel their school bag – such is the weight of it – back home.

As a sweeping statement, Chinese students are often labeled academically very strong but short of creativity, initiative and social skills. It’s the IQ v EQ argument and parents are beginning to acknowledge the significance of EQ, especially when it comes to university applications abroad.

Western universities look at the student beyond their test scores. They want to know if they can bring more to the university than just good grades. Do they have other skills in sport, music, drama etc.? Do they contribute to the community? Parents are now considering these questions but the student would often end up specialising in ballet or a musical instrument ahead of any sport.

That’s partly due to a presence of the archaic belief that sport only provides physical benefits. However, parents are beginning to accept that regular involvement in sport allows participants to develop their leadership skills, confidence, ability to deal with different characters, decision making and crucially, understanding of teamwork. A set of transferable skills not just limited to school but also their careers further down the line. Furthermore, an increase in alertness, concentration and healthier lifestyle will naturally assist their work or studies.

But it will take a great deal of time for the majority of parents to accept this to be true and not see P.E. as just an opportunity for overrun students to let off some steam. In my opinion, more time than the 34 years they’ve set to become a superpower within football both on and off the pitch. But as the locals say, “Don’t underestimate China!”

China’s Five Obstacles – 1) Culture

CultureIn the first of five articles, The Mumbler looks at what is stopping China from becoming the football powerhouse their Government and Leader desire…

The Chinese attitude towards football is like a naïve Michelle Pfeiffer’s towards her students in Dangerous Minds – poor at first but improves over time (belated spoiler alert).

Parents in China saw football as a bad boy sport, particularly after the corruption issues that limited the game’s appeal to the masses. It was assumed that only students who aren’t academically strong would partake in football and that the benefits of the sport were – in their eyes – only physical.

Fortunately, as the nation tried to clean up the corruption by punishing those convicted, the general attitude started to improve (it couldn’t really get worse). This has been hastened by the Government’s recent Football reform, which has encouraged State schools to introduce football into the Physical Education syllabus in all Primary and Secondary schools as well as increasing the proportion of hours.

Chinese students studying

Chinese students study in a competitive and demanding environment.

The tremendous demands of the academic system in China means further study takes over any other activity during a child’s spare time. Developing hobbies is generally seen to be a secondary concern and if there were such opportunities then parents would prefer their child to excel at a musical instrument over kicking a ball.

Education is of huge importance to China and it is a big business as proven by private schools such as Dulwich, Wellington and Harrow opening up campuses in Shanghai.

Chinese parents are at least beginning to appreciate other core benefits of football. Although, this change in attitude won’t suddenly happen like a Britney Spears wedding, as it will take time and a fair amount of it, too.

We Brits take our football culture for granted with endless TV and radio coverage (admittedly not always insightful); a variety of books available and countless parks often occupied by amateur leagues and wannabe stars. In China, this isn’t the case and will require a great deal of resources to establish anything close to what the UK has.

Football is played regularly at UK schools be it during break times or in P.E. class. Children as young as seven, are able to compete in local leagues in support of their development and understanding of the game. But in China, these platforms and opportunities are very much in their infancy and referenced in the Government’s reform. However, whether or not the additional time dedicated to football at State schools is truly taking place is a different matter. After all, an extra class here and there is only going to go so far even after the parents have been convinced.

Having played five seasons of amateur football in Shanghai, I’ve noticed that the approach to the sport is also in need of development. The few Chinese sides that are in the International Leagues on both Saturdays and Sundays are sometimes behind in areas such as discipline, sportsmanship and organisation.


It’s hard to mark a man in tights.

Recently, we played against a side that had a mismatch of red coloured kits and someone – who wasn’t terrible – playing in tights. No shorts, just tights. Obviously it was hard to take the situation seriously but that’s indictment of a player who is unbeknown to what we regard as basic expectations.

Respect for referees – who are pretty terrible here – and sportsmanship are limited both on an amateur and professional level. I’ve witnessed several clashes between Chinese and foreign players – who aren’t always blameless – during amateur competitions that are probably driven by egos and certainly a dearth of discipline.

At the Shanghai Derby I watched a player from SIPG help his opponent from Shenhua who was suffering with cramp. Unfortunately, one of the biggest cheers of the night didn’t arrive when this sporting gesture started but when another SIPG player pushed his teammate away, bringing the act to a premature end. Perhaps I’m just being hopeful that a local derby could set an example for impressionable fans still learning the game.

I’ve regularly seen players crowding referees in the Chinese Super League and getting overly physical. China isn’t alone in its lack of respect for the officials with European teams unfortunately just as culpable. But the frequency at which Chinese players ignore the boundaries of authority on the pitch seems to be greater and would add credence to the social stigma that it’s a sport for bad boys and the poorly educated.

What is certain is that these incidents need to be reduced or ideally eradicated for the country to have a chance of reaching its ambitious targets. They’re not errors made on purpose but mistakes forced by limited understanding in addition to an insufficient football environment.

In response to a question regarding certain nations succeeding in specific sports because of their natural physique, Kevin Anderson, Technical Director at the Guangzhou R&F/Chelsea football school, stated that “nations specialise in certain sports because of their infrastructures.” He dismissed that Chinese players can’t match the world’s best because of their size, citing players like Iniesta, Messi and Xavi as prime examples.

But China needs to establish a football culture similar to that of the UK, which is by no means perfect, to give them a chance of fulfilling their potential.