After years of spending big money on bringing in foreign stars, China is now aiming to reach the top with a long-term change in strategy. Reaching the quarterfinal of this year's Asian Cup is an important stepping stone.
When asked why the most populous country on earth isn't a footballing powerhouse, Marcello Lippi took a deep breath and looked critically at the gathered journalists.
"The most important thing is to invest in youth," said the Italian coach, who has been in charge of the Chinese national team since 2016. "We've made a lot of progress but we still need reliable structures to find talent more quickly and reach the top."
The 17th edition of the Asian Cup, the final of which takes place on February 1 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is an important staging post for Chinese football. Four years ago in 2015, President Xi Jinping declared China's aim of becoming a major power in the planet's most popular sport by 2050. If the country's performances in the Gulf this year are anything to go by, the foundations are there – but the next steps in its footballing development remain unclear.
After an unspectacular group stage, the Chinese beat Thailand 2-1 in the last-16 in Al Ain on Sunday to reach the quarterfinals, where they will face Iran. But much more important than the results on the pitch are developments off it; the development of a footballing culture in which young fans become passionate players and good players become superstars.
New regulations to boost local talent
China is not the first nation to try to challenge Europe's footballing hegemony. In the 1970s, the United States recruited the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer to help boost the profile of "soccer" stateside, while Japan launched its J-League in 1992. Since the turn of the millennium, Russia has also tried to breathe life into post-Soviet football with the help of international icons, as have Gulf States such as Qatar and the UAE. China initially took a similar approach but quickly recognized that such massive investment isn't necessarily sustainable.
The transfer fees that Chinese clubs pumped into the market "made even the most successful clubs in the world look comparatively penniless," writes Felix Lill, a long-term observer of football in the Far East, in the German broadsheet Die Zeit. From Carlos Tevez to Alex Teixeira to Axel Witsel, huge names have been tempted eastwards with annual salaries in excess of €20 million ($22.7 million). Lippi, Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning coach, is the highest-paid coach in the world, while a Chinese club allegedly offered Cristiano Ronaldo €100 million, according to the Portuguese star's agent.
But with progress remaining slow, there's been a change of strategy.
"Clubs are now only allowed to have four foreign players in their squads and three on the pitch," explains Ai Ting Ting, a reporter for state television station CCTV. There must also always be at least one Chinese player under the age of 23.
The aim is to encourage fans to identify with stars in their local teams rather than supporting Liverpool, Bayern Munich or Barcelona, to boost the attractiveness of the Chinese Super League for sponsors, and most importantly, to improve the quality of the national team.
Football: an investor's link to politics
But nothing's been agreed yet.
"The Chinese Football Association (CFA) faces political and economic challenges from all sides," says John Duerden, who reports on Asian football for British outlets such as The Guardian.
Like the CFA itself, many first division clubs are linked to large businesses and companies, particularly from the real estate industry. And, according to Duerden, it's not always clear whether these investors are really interested in football or ir they're just using the clubs to strengthen their networks and establish links to key decision-makers in the ruling Communist Party.
Meanwhile, at the grassroots, football has never been considered a viable opportunity for social progression in China. Parents who could afford it would spend their money on an expensive education for their children, so now, football has been given a more prominent place on the sports curriculum in schools.
Indeed, the government is aiming to build thousands of special training centers across the country by 2025. Seven-time Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande were advised by Real Madrid on the establishment of one of the biggest football academies in the world, with 3,000 youth players across over 50 pitches.
China has been developing contacts with football associations and clubs all over Europe and South America – including the German FA (DFB) and some German clubs – for the exchange of coaches, sports scientists, doctors and technicians. Youth teams have been sent to gain experience in friendlies abroad where, particularly in Germany, they have been met with protests against human rights abuses in China.
Work to do in team sports
In Europe, football has had over 150 years to grow and develop – but how fast will it catch on in China?
"Competition forms a key ideal in Chinese society and there is an emphasis on sport and discipline in sport, too," explains Tariq Panja of the New York Times.
Families make huge sacrifices to send their children to the best universities. Young athletes train incredibly hard for Olympic medals, usually in individual disciplines and often on bases which are more akin to army barracks. The result is that China regularly finishes towards the top of the medal table at the Summer Games.
"But they've not yet been able to catch up in team sports," says Panja, who has often conducted research in China. "That's going to require a change in attitudes."
China qualified for the World Cup for the first, and as yet only, time in 2002, losing all three group games and failing to score a single goal. In 2004, they reached the final of the Asian Cup. Can the huge country latch on to those relative successes again?
"The road ahead of us is a long one," says Lippi who, at the grand old age of 70, is set to retire after this year's Asian Cup. It will fall to others to complete the job of waking this sleeping giant from its slumber.