BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, has warned his compatriots not to expect overnight results despite the heavy financial investment in raising the standards of football in the world’s most populous nation.
The first modern wave of enthusiasm for the game in China soon after the country opened up to the world in the 1980s was washed away by years of corruption scandals and poor performances on the pitch.
And while the frenzy of spending by Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs has triggered hopes of a new dawn, Wang warned that the game needed rebuilding from the grassroots, which would take some time.
“Chinese football is riding on a fresh rising tide after the boom in the 1990s,” Wang said in an interview with China’s state news agency Xinhua.
”We can say that the game has developed better now than was the case years ago in China. To put it simply, football is a money sport that requires a high capital input. But it also matters how the money is spent.
“As a result of a doubled or redoubled capital input, the CSL has flourished for the past four or five years, while in sharp contrast the number of youth playing football has not gone up significantly.”
Clubs such as Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua have spent huge sums over the last year to lure world class South American players like Oscar, Hulk and Carlos Tevez to the league.
While the league grows in profile, however, the national team has continued to struggle.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has set the country’s sights on becoming a major player in the sport, with his stated ambition to see the country qualify for, host and win the World Cup.
China has qualified only once for the World Cup finals in 2002 and the Marcello Lippi-coached national team is on the verge of elimination from qualifying for Russia 2018.
Wang, whose links to the sport extend back to the 1990s when he owned the Dalian club and whose Wanda conglomerate part owns Atletico Madrid, stressed fans in China needed to allow investment in youth development time to pay off.
“It is unlikely to see results in just three to five years,” he said.
”But it is never too late if concrete actions are taken to develop sports facilities, promote youth participation, and organise youth games.
“In terms of fostering football players, we have to be patient and wait for up to 10 years before results can be seen.”
Reporting by Michael Church in Sydney, editing by Nick Mulvenney