China's football experts agree: focus on youth development with a 20-year plan

According to the Chinese Football Association, China had more than 650,000 players under the age of 18 registered in the early 1990s. That number plummeted to 7,000 at the end of last year. In comparison, Japan has 500,000. "Nowadays, I think there are at most 10 out of a thousand schools in China that support students to play soccer," China's former national football captain, Hao Haidong, told Tang Zhe and Chen Xiangfeng of the China Daily.

Hao beilives only a strong youth program can save China's football from an even greater malaise. "Everybody knows children need a good atmosphere and environment to discover their talents in music and painting. In fact, it is the same in soccer," he said. "There's no need for us to argue which soccer style we should learn as our neighbor, Japan, is the best teacher for us. We have no time and the CFA must do it right away and step by step."

Former national team coach Gao Fengwen, who guided the Chinese men's team to its first Olympics in Seoul in 1998, echoed Hao's thoughts. "The youth are the future of Chinese soccer. We must make a solid foundation for the youth from the beginning in terms of training, management and culture education. Otherwise it will still be hard for us to make progress," Gao said.

"Chinese soccer is very late (in its development). If we judge Chinese soccer with that of Japan, maybe there is a 20-year difference," Shenzhen FC's French coach, Philippe Troussier, who spent a rewarding spell in Japan from 1998 to 2002. told China Daily.

"The Chinese have good skills, I think no different (from the Japanese players), but they are weak strategically,"he said, adding, "For that you have to teach the players from the beginning. You need strong youth development through schools and clubs. This is the next big project the CFA must think of for the next 20 years."

Dutchman Arie Haan, who was in charge of the Chinese national team from 2002 to 2004, agrees with Troussier. "You have to start with the youth, and to learn from the countries which are doing the same thing," he said. "A lot of countries have very good youth programs, so you have to look at how they organize, how they do and you need the right people for it, and I think after a few years you will get results, but it takes a lot of time."

New CFA chief Wei admitted his organization is now paying for its long-term ignorance. "The training system of Chinese teenage soccer has slipped into a state of paralysis over the past few years, and we are beginning to pay for the mistakes now," Wei said. "The popularization of soccer should start with children and the progress of Chinese soccer depends on the emergence of high-level young players."

See also: Dalian confirms $77 million sponsorship to stabilise Chinese league and grassroots football and CFA's programs unlikely to turn China's huge youth problems around in short-term.

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