German football coach Kevin Stotz spent a season and a half working in the Chinese Super League. He spoke to DW about the challenges of working in China and the country's chances of becoming a footballing power.
DW: Kevin Stotz, you started working with Felix Magath at Shandong Luneng two years ago. What was it like, getting started in China?
KS: It's a completely different world. The country has a population of 1.3 billion people; it's on a completely different scale. The Chinese are very friendly but they're different. They walk straight across roads staring at their phones, barely looking at what's around them and bumping into each other. The traffic chaos took me by surprise, too.
Was the language barrier a problem at first?
It was quite unusual for both me and Felix. We communicated via interpreters. But we also had other foreign players and they had interpreters too, which meant that instructions often got passed through several intermediaries. That took some getting used to!
How did you see your own role? More as a development trainer or a coach aiming for sporting success?
Both. We signed a long-term contract because we wanted to develop something here, and we managed to do that quite quickly. When we took over, the team was bottom of the table but we managed to avoid relegation. Felix worked particularly hard on the players' physical conditioning and we were able to monitor their progress through scientific testing. We could see that they were getting better but they're still some way from the level of Bundesliga players.
Is there a lot of enthusiasm for football in China?
The Chinese love football – it's the number one sport in the country, ahead of table tennis. When we first arrived, our average crowd was 20,000. In our second season, we averaged 35,000. Of course, the foreign stars are also a big attraction for the fans.
Chinese clubs invested huge sums in international stars last year – Hulk (€50 million), Oscar (€71 million) and Alex Teixeira (€50 million) to name but three. How do these transfers come about?
Let me give you an example. If we need new pens in the office, just normal, everyday items, we have to fill out forms which then have to be authorized by 10 different people … it's all very complicated. The technical director of Shanghai SIPG told me once that the Hulk transfer was at least as complicated as ordering office stationary.
How professional are things at Chinese clubs?
In terms of the facilities, our club, Shandong Luneng, was at a level that would even make some Bundesliga outfits jealous. They have grass pitches, their own gym and the medical department had the most modern of machines. The club had a cooperation agreement with the German Sport University in Cologne and members of their staff visited us from time to time in Jinan to conduct tests. You can get anything you need in China when money is not an issue.
However, everything is in its infancy. The gym still smelled like new because it never got used properly. You first have to take the players by the hand, but that's what we were there for – to show them how and what to use – and when.
So they are at the start of their development?
I wouldn't say that, even if the boom of the last few years is over for now. A lot of things have changed. More is being invested in the youth programs. It used to be that it was only aging stars who were looking for an adventure who were attracted to China, where they could also do very well financially. Now, though, things have changed. More players who are at the peaks of their careers are being signed – such as the Brazilian Oscar. You can observe this trend with coaches too. Roger Schmidt, for example, is still quite young.
Do the Chinese have the patience it will take to implement President Xi Jinping's pet project of turning the country into a major footballing power?
I have spoken a lot about this issue with a lot of people and many say they cannot see China becoming a footballing power in their lifetimes. I'm 27 and I don't think I will see it in my lifetime either.
China is aiming to reach the top of the game and win a World Cup by 2050…
I think this is almost impossible. The game will definitely develop further here and they will make progress, of course. China will certainly qualify for the World Cup. However, it is unrealistic to think that they will ever overtake countries like Germany or Brazil.
Kevin Stotz, 27 a native of the southern Germany city of Heidelberg spent the better part of two years at Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng before his contract expired at the end of the current season a few weeks ago. Previously, Stolz studied sports science before spending time job-shadowing at Bundesliga clubs Hoffenheim and Hertha Berlin. He first worked with former Bundesliga coach Felix Magath at English club Fulham.
The interview was conducted by Thomas Klein.