Journeyman German coach Eckhard Krautzun tells DW he's excited by the idea of China's Olympic team regularly playing German lower league sides. He once trained China's U20s and expects great things from the country.
DW: Mr Krautzun, what do you make of the idea of letting China's Olympic team play regular but non-competitive games against fourth-tier German teams from the southwestern regional league?
Eckhard Krautzun: I'm a big fan of the Chinese team and I think it's an excellent idea, even if it does sound a little bizarre at first. Ultimately it's all about competition. In China, there aren't any strong divisions besides the professional CSL [Chinese Super League] and the second-tier China League One. In amateur and youth football, only now are people trying to establish truly competitive divisions. This makes the caliber of football on offer in Germany's regional divisions very attractive. Even back when I was coaching in China in 2004 with the U20s, preparing them for the junior world championships in the Netherlands, there was a plan to field the young team in Bavaria's Regionalliga. But in the end it didn't work out, because certain FIFA regulations didn't permit it.
These lads could be playing regular matches against amateur men's teams in southwestern Germany before very long
Would China's U20s fit in the division in terms of their abilities? How strong is the team?
Have no doubt that the team is ready to play and to compete. In China at the moment we have the young German coach Lars Isecke, who previously had a long stint as assistant coach for Germany's U21s and U19s. He knows how strong these young players are. He just took the U19s to the Panda Cup where they fared very well. [Editor's note: Hungary won the four-team U19s tournament in Chengdu, ahead of Slovakia, Iran and then China.] Because of this, I absolutely believe that the Chinese lads can hold their own against Regionalliga teams.
'Four youth academy sites'
If you look at Germany's U20 team, it's made up exclusively of players being groomed at Bundesliga academies or second division academies. How does it work in the case of China? How and where are young talents developed?
Youth academies are being built right now. They are orienting themselves closely to the German football association's, the DFB's, model. The pro teams in the first and second CSL divisions are also expected to show that they're developing youth facilities, meeting strict criteria along the way. The best players will then be trained there. At the moment there are several soccer camps, all sorts of teams and coaches are rolling through China, from Barcelona via Bayern Munich to Chelsea and beyond. But they don't yet have the right structures in place. That's where the DFB is meant to help. Four academies are currently planned: in Shanghai, Qingdao, Inner Mongolia and Beijing. The first youth academies are supposed to be developed with DFB help and expertise.
There have been all manner of meetings to this end: between China's CFA association and the DFB, between the CFL and DFL professional league associations, and between China's education ministry and the relevant German ministries - even Chancellor Angela Merkel has held talks on the topic with President Xi Jinping. They will be meeting again at the G20 summit in Hamburg. There, a close cooperation with the DFB is among the planned talking points - focusing on training, development, youth coaching, marketing and competitiveness.
When this DFB plan to pit China's U20s against lower league sides was announced, authorities initially said that all the teams involved were happy with the idea. In the meantime, SV Waldhof Mannheim have said that they would boycott the initiative and wouldn't play the Chinese team. Clubs from unaffected regional divisions elsewhere in Germany - like Rot-Weiss Essen and Rot-Weiß Oberhausen - have also issued critical comments. Do you sympathize with this?
You need to have a clear picture before rushing into such strong statements. At first it was said that everyone except FK Pirmasens was on board. Now I'm hearing more critical voices. The decision is due for July 11. Nothing is even decided yet, so I don't quite understand all this premature excitement. At the moment, there's lots of chatter, lots of interpretations of what's still a fluid situation.
It's fairly easy to see the gain for China in such a plan - they're seeking a better way to prepare the team for the 2020 Olympics. Do you also see areas where the German fourth-tier teams could benefit from the DFB's possible deal with China?
Four declarations of intent were signed a few days ago at the German-Chinese football summit in Frankfurt. Both sides want there to be give and take. The Chinese association wishes to learn from the DFB, which excels in areas like training and youth academy construction. And we can learn from the Chinese too. An active exchange in the academies, among coaches, and one day involving professional players - everybody could only benefit from that.
Some Bundesliga teams - for instance Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich and Cologne - already have subsidiaries in China or partnerships with top-tier clubs there. Do you think such deals are purely financial in nature, or could there be sporting gains from such collaboration?
Both. Of course it would be fantastic from a marketing perspective for a top German team to have exceptional Chinese talents in their ranks, because that would garner enormous media attention in China. There was the example of Xizhe Zhang at Wolfsburg - who was unveiled to great fanfare but who unfortunately did not make the sporting grade. But we know that players like Zhang, or Xie Hui at Aachen or Chen Yang at Eintracht Frankfurt have awoken real interest. The one thing that does concern me are the astronomical fees currently being paid for European footballers - often rather mediocre ones - to tempt them to play in the CSL. I'm virtually convinced that we will soon see the CFA introduce caps on transfer fees and player wages.
Krautzun helped China's 2008 Olympics team establish a partnership with the football academy in Bad Kissingen, near Frankfurt
'Japanese and Korean players are more ambitious'
And yet so far, no Chinese player has managed to establish themselves as a regular starter for a top German or European team. Why is this? And when would you expect a Chinese player to clear this hurdle - as Japanese players have for years now?
That's really simple: There are major mentality differences between Japanese, Chinese and Korean players. European clubs love to bring in Japanese and Korean talent nowadays. They're hungry. They're disciplined. It's a huge honor for them to be playing in Germany or France or England or Spain.
But Chinese players start earning very good money very early on in their professional divisions. And that's the problem. They say to themselves: 'As long as we're earning well in our home country and are regularly in the starting XI, why should we bother fighting to establish ourselves at a club in Europe?' That, sadly, is the difference between them and their Japanese and Korean counterparts, who tend to have more ambition in this regard.
Famously, China's President Xi Jinping is a football fan, and wants his country to up its game. The potential - certainly in terms of the size of the talent pool - is undeniable. What's still missing, if Mr. Xi's dream is to become a reality?
Step one is competition: regular school competitions, high-quality match-ups between teams at U12, U16, U17 and U19 levels. That's being introduced now. In schools, which I often visit as part of the four months a year I currently spend in China, there are now clear instructions to build more sports facilities. Almost every school now has an artificial pitch like an Astroturf.
The next step will be training up the schoolteachers. That's one area where the DFB is helping. Between 1,000 and 1,500 young, curious and adventurous German coaches are being sent to China; it's a learning process for them of course, but they can also spread their football know-how at these schools and universities.
And what about a World Cup in China? That's another goal of Xi Jinping's.
All the conditions are already fulfilled: stadiums, infrastructure, logistics, interest, marketing potential and TV capabilities. It would be a great thing - and China could make it happen, no problem at all.
Eckhard Krautzun, 76, has coached football all over the world - working at a grand total of 31 teams in 11 different countries down the years. Besides club appointments in Germany, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Switzerland, the US and Tunisia, he was also either national team coach or director in Kenya, Canada, Malaysia, Tunisia, South Korea and the Philippines. He coached China's U20 team from 2003 to 2005, and still regularly works in China as a youth coach and an adviser on developing the game.
Andreas Sten-Ziemons conducted the interview.