(210423) -- SUZHOU, April 23, 2021 (Xinhua) -- Li Xiaopeng (front), head coach of Wuhan FC, instructs players during the 1st round match between Hebei FC and Wuhan FC at the 2021 season Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL) Suzhou Division in Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province, April 23, 2021. (Xinhua/Li Bo)

OPINION – Football Reforms in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan

The recent appointment of Li Xiaopeng to succeed Li Tie as the coach of China’s national men’s football team and the arrival of Jorn Anderson as the coach of the Hong Kong men’s football team have signalled the beginning of another stage of modernization of football in the two places.

The announcement of Li Xiaopeng to succeed Li Tie took place in early December 2021, when the Chinese national men’s football team did not perform well in World Cup qualifying matches. Li Tie vented his anger during a press conference after which he was replaced. 

Objectively speaking, Li Tie voiced his grievances at the tremendous criticisms and pressure he had encountered, saying that he and his team members had endured long separation with family members in the preparation of the matches. He complained that there was almost no difference between playing at home in the mainland and competing with the hosts in hosting countries, implying the lack of public understanding of the predicament of the national football team. 

Although Li’s open complaint was embarrassing to the Chinese Football Association, his comments did reflect the need for public sympathy with the difficulties that the Chinese national men’s football team encountered. Quite often, mainland football commentators were very harsh on the performance of individual players and the strategies of the national coaches. Whenever China did not perform well, fingers pointing could be seen easily in the mainland football commentary circle – a situation pointing to the problem of blaming individuals without offering constructive solutions on how the Chinese Football Association can and should reform the mainland football.

In late 2021, several premier clubs, notably Guangzhou Evergrande, had to be closed due to difficulties of their business operation. Evergrande, which was very successful in the past decade to elevate the standard of Chinese men football and brought glory to Chinese football in Asian competition, was affected by its business difficulties. It has been recently changed to become a Guangzhou team, signalling the end of the period during which the expansion of Chinese men football was driven by not only the business conglomerates but also its “gold money” or huge investment.

Apart from Evergrande’s downfall in Chinese football, some other teams also faced financial difficulties, such as Jiangsu Suning – a situation reflecting the combined impacts of persistent Covid-19 and financial difficulties on the development of Chinese football.

A few foreign coaches who led the Chinese premier football clubs pointed to some core problems of the Chinese football – problems that need to be addressed if China is eager to improve its football standard in general and the national team’s performance.

First and foremost, they pointed to the excessively but inappropriate interventionist nature of the Chinese Football Association. An Italian coach, Fabio Cannavaro, who left Guangzhou Evergrande for Italy, remarked in October 2021 that some requirements made by the Football Association were excessive, such as the cap on the wages of expensive foreign players and the need for clubs to send young players under 23 years’ old to gain experiences in a fixed period in a match. He said that some players under 23 years old were of substandard, and that foreign players’ wages were set in accordance with the market mechanism.

The problems of the Chinese Football Association are, firstly, its interventionist policy was contradictory to the market operation, unless it had long set a monetary ceiling for mainland football clubs to recruit foreign players long ago. Moreover, there was a tendency of the leaders of the Association to expect quick results for the U23 national team. However, there was no quick shortcut to success in the football world; the entire system, institution and policies must be established solidly at the early beginning. China’s football development has been adopting the practice of incremental changes without a long-term fix at the identifiable problems.

The second problem of the mainland football development is that, although many coaches have undergone training by foreign countries such as Germany, there was and is a serious disconnect between the management of football at the national level and that between the provincial and local levels. Arguably, the modernization of football at all the provinces must undergo a drastic reform, including better management of football competition from the primary to secondary schools, and from universities to provincial level. While other sports, such as table tennis, have shown a tighter coordination and connection between the national and provincial level of management, such tight organization surprisingly cannot be seen in the football sector.

The third problem is the underdevelopment of youth teams in China with strict discipline and the necessary education being imparted to all young players. Ideally, young players must not only be trained in football but also be educated at the primary, secondary and university levels simultaneously so that they are knowledgeable about the skills of football and other disciplines, ranging from food nutrition to science, and from psychology to personal ethics. 

Perhaps the recent closure of some football clubs, which previously relied heavily on big money to develop, may be a positive development to correct the abnormal growth of China’s football in the past decade. During the current period in which Covid-19 persists, this transition period can be a time for the Chinese Football Association to reform the mainland football, including its own management and coordination with provincial-level associations and youth development, in a more far-sighted manner.

At the same time, the Hong Kong national men’s football team has witnessed the arrival of a new coach, Jorn Anderson, who said on January 14 that he would change the over-defensive tactics employed by the previous national team in the forthcoming matches, including the Asian Cup qualifying round and the East Asian Cup qualifying matches. While his identification of the tactical problem of the national team was a progressive phenomenon, the Hong Kong Football Association has also been undergoing a leadership renewal that brings about more reforms and educative activities.

Yet, self-discipline among young players remain an issue in the Hong Kong U23 team, some of whom have been recently penalized for drinking during a visit to Japan. Given that some Hong Kong youth are highly individualistic, their self-discipline and training will be necessary to elevate the standard of local football. As with the mainland’s football reform, Hong Kong’s football reform will require a more forceful educative campaign targeting at all young players and students interested in football.

In Macau, because of Covid-19, the Macau national men’s team has little opportunities to gain more international experiences. On the other hand, the Macau government’s most recently published 2021-2025 plan on economic and social development has not mentioned anything about sports policy and development – a gap that might show that the government’s policy priorities are in other areas, such as the preventive fight against Covid-19, the development of the gaming industry, and the development of the bond centre in Macau-Hengqin cooperative zone. However, it is hoped that the government’s next five-year plan should really redevelop its sports policy, which is currently absent in the governmental agenda. 

Arguably, the Macau Football Association should perhaps take the initiative to discuss with the mainland and Hong Kong counterparts to organize a new Greater Bay Area Football League so that the standard of Macau football can be elevated. At least, there will be more chances for local Macau players to gain more regional experiences.

The former Taipei national men’s football team coach, Vom Ca-nhum was surprisingly fired by the Taipei National Football Association after an incident in which some Taipei players were found drinking before the Asian Cup qualifying match with Indonesia in October 2021. Six other players were fined. The assistant coach, Yeh Hsien-chung, replaced Vom, but Taipei was defeated by Indonesia 1-2. Before he was dismissed, Vom had said in November that Taiwan’s football development was hampered partly by the lack of intensity in local competition and partly by the lack of prospects on the part of young players.

Taiwan’s football had been criticized for having management problem. Although the national sports ordinance was passed by Taiwan’s Legislative Assembly as early as 2017, it was found that in late 2021 the Taiwan National Football Association still used the 2016 regulations for management. If so, internal management problems must be addressed more effectively and urgently.

Ideally, if football is detached from politics, and if Taiwan’s national team can be integrated into a new Greater Bay Area football league, Taiwan’s football standard can also be elevated by having more regional competition. 

In December 2021, the Guangdong provincial government published its 2021-2025 plan to improve the physical capability of all its citizens. Cities in the Greater Bay Area are reportedly going to attract the sports associations of Hong Kong and Macau to participate in the sports development of Guangdong province. If so, the football associations of both Hong Kong and Macau should grasp this golden opportunity to form a new football league with the mainland cities. If Taiwan can ideally join as a team without political implications, then the development of football in all the four places in Greater China – mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan – will surely benefit from a win-win situation.

In conclusion, football development in mainland China and Hong Kong has been undergoing rapid changes and reforms. These reforms are progressive, especially in China where the collapse of some formerly affluent football clubs has arguably “normalized” Chinese football development. Gone were the days in which big money investment and the import of foreign players were regarded as the double keys to success. However, the path to reform mainland Chinese football remains an indigenous solution that can elevate the standard of youth football. Similarly, Hong Kong’s football reforms are proceeding rapidly, while Macau is perhaps waiting for the closer cooperation with the Greater Bay Area in elevating its football standard. Taiwan must tackle its internal management first although it has tremendous potential to develop and compete regionally and internationally. Overall, the prospects of reforming football in the Greater China region remains cautiously optimistic and hopeful.