Should China's football league turn back to local coaching talent?

Xinhua
The state of the CSL at present speaks to a brutal fact: there is little chance for local coaches to shine in the league.
Xinhua
Imaginechina

Li Xiaopeng was recently appointed as the coach of Shandong Luneng.

A recent head coach appointment made by top-flight Chinese side Shandong Luneng has aroused heated online debate in the country about the future of local talent in its domestic football league.

The club decided to replace its German coach Felix Magath with Li Xiaopeng earlier this month. In Luneng's 20-year history, Li Xiaopeng is the only Chinese to be named as head coach. In fact, few clubs in the top-flight Chinese football league are following suit nowadays.

But that could soon change. The Chinese Footabll Association (CFA) recently released a draft plan stipulating that the top-tier and second-division clubs must field at least one local U23 player in each game starting from the 2018 season in a bid to give more chances to young local talents.

Some are pointing to these developments as signs that the overall composition of the league may soon look a lot more Chinese. Nevertheless, serious challenges remain for local talent in China's top-flight football league that will have to be tackled if major changes are indeed afoot.

A comback for Chinese coaches

Magath came to Luneng in June 2016, and successfully saved the side from relegation, and led them to a sixth-place finish last season. His departure makes him the third big-name foreign coach to leave China, following Andre Villas-Boas and Luiz Felipe Scolari.

The 42-year-old Li Xiaopeng, who spent his entire playing career with Shandong Luneng, was one of the key members in China's only World Cup experience in 2002. As a player, Li helped Luneng win one Chinese Jia-A League title, three CFA Cup titles and one Chinese Super League (CSL) Cup title.

Li started working with Luneng as a vice manager in Decmeber of 2015 after he served as head coach of the women's national team, and as general manager of Shijiazhuang Everbright F.C.

Hao Wei, who managed the Chinese women's national team from 2012 to 2015, has been named assistant coach and technical director of Luneng.

Luneng has had over ten foreign coaches in its history, including some big-name foreign managers like Henk ten Cate, Mano Menezes and Radomir Antic.

The club said that plans to name a local coach were long in the making.

"We have always been dedicated to the development of local, young coaches since the club's inception. It is with this in mind that we have hired foreign coaches: to provide domestic coaches with opportunities for learning. The ultimate goal has always been for the good of Chinese football," said Luneng in a statement.

Foreign coaches coming to the Chinese football leagues has become a trend in recent years. Several CSL clubs chose Chinese coaches for the new season, like Chen Jingang at Changchun Yatai and Wu Jingui at Shanghai Shenhua. Still, only 3 out of 16 CSL clubs have named domestic coaches so far.

There have also been several new appointments of Chinese coaches in the second-tier China League One, such as former Everton midfielder Li Tie at Wuhan Zall, and Zhu Jiong at Shanghai Shenxin.

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Shanghai Greenland Shenhua claimed the CFA title after local coach Wu Jingui took over Uruguayan Gus Poyet.

More coaches for local Chinese talent

Since the founding of the CSL in 2004, there have only been four locals given the league's Best Coach of the Year Award. Ma Lin was the most recent Chinese coach to be given the award, in 2011.

Things don't look much better at present for local talent on the pitch. Wu Lei of Shanghai SIPG was the only homegrown player to take second place in the top 20 scorers' list in the 2017 CSL season.

Of the eight coaches to have won the CSL trophy, only two were Chinese. Zhu Guanghu of Shenzhen Jianlibao won the first CSL title in 2004, and Gao Hongbo of Yatai took the title in 2007.

The state of the CSL at present speaks to a brutal fact: there is little chance for local coaches to shine in the league. The talent pool of Chinese coaches is small enough as is, and the problems are only compounded by the tendency of clubs to look abroad for leadership. Only clubs on the bottom half of the table routinely appoint Chinese coaches.

Take the CSL 2017 season as an example. Only three out of 16 teams at the beginning employed Chinese coaches. These were replaced by foreign coaches midway through the season, and four Chinese coaches took caretaker positions by the end of the season. Ironically, Chinese coaches are always deemed the best choices for caretaker roles.

In the past several years, Chinese football has undeniably been gaining the world's attention. While many CSL clubs spend big on foreign strikers and attacking midfielders, performance (both of the clubs themselves and of China men' s national team) remains at a low level. Chinese sports officials have come to realize that performance is limited by the standard of the local Chinese players, who form the core of national squads.

In an effort to develop Chinese football, the CFA acted to prevent Chinese players from getting squeezed out, demanding the clubs to field more U23 players on the pitch to support local talents.

China's football governing body in May also ruled that any club spending cash on foreign players must pay the same sum of money to a football development fund as a tax for making such hires.

While challenges remain, it is clear that the league intends to raise its standards to avoid becoming a "retirement league" for older foreign players. One recent example of the changes saw Brazilian midfielder Paulinho leave Guangzhou Evergrande to return to Barcelona.

Growing investments in football coaching courses

China plans to become a world football superpower by 2050, and in the process, to get 50 million children and adults playing football by 2020. It also aims to train 50,000 full-time and part-time football coaches by 2020.

But there remains a major shortage of qualified coaches in China, especially at the grassroots level. The preference for foreign coaches in China has translated into a serious neglect of investment in football coaching. In addition, many professional Chinese footballers plan to follow management or business career paths rather than coaching football after hanging up their boots.

This is a major and ongoing issue that the CFA plans to address by renewing its focus on the training of coaches. The quality of young players is in large part dependent on the quality of the instruction they receive from coaches. To this end, the CFA has taken steps to develop a network of high-quality grassroots coaches that prioritize two areas: coaching skills and eliciting widespread and continuing participation from schools.

The CFA last month said in a statement on their website that they have launched coaching training courses for football players in 48 professional clubs ranging from men's and women's Super League sides to clubs in the second-tier League One, helping the players to obtain coaching licenses.

But these developments do not mean that foreign coaching talent is going suddenly disappear from the league.

CFA vice-present Li Yuyi recently denied rumors that there would be any ban on foreign coaches in Chinese clubs.

"Chinese football is always open to the world, because we can always learn from high-level football talent," said Li Yuyi at a recent forum on financial risks in Chinese football. "We certainly are determined to develop domestic coaches and youth training, and that forms our foundation for footballing success," Li added.

Without a doubt, Chinese football has a long way to go before its talent level can match that seen in top European leagues or football giants like Brazil or Germany. Despite the challenges that remain, China, with its extensive resources (and the potential to utilize them to foster new talents both on the pitch and in the coaching box) is signaling to the world that it intends to quickly 'up its game.'

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