According to media reports, a Chinese U20 could play in one of Germany's regional fourth-tier leagues next season. The plans follow a deal aimed at enhancing cooperation between Germany and China in football.
China's under-20 national team could play in Germany's fourth tier next season, according to plans expected to be announced by the German football association (DFB) a soon as next month.
The fourth tier of the German football pyramid is split into five regional divisions and, with the south-western division, the Regionalliga Südwest, having only 19 teams, a proposal has emerged to round the league off with a 20th side - from China.
"[The clubs] have reacted very positively to the idea," Ronny Zimmermann, vice-president of the DFB and chairman of the Regionalliga Südwest board of partners, told German football magazine "Kicker."
The plan follows an agreement signed in 2016 between the German FA and the Chinese government to help boost the sport in the Asian country, where the Bundesliga enjoys growing popularity. Chinese football stands to benefit from German expertise in coaching and development in return for Chinese investment in German football.
A Chinese fan shows her colors during Bayern Munich's 2015 tour - Bundesliga sides are popular in China
"An outstanding idea"
"The planned cooperation with China is well known but that needs to be translated into actions as well," Zimmermann said. "We'll have to see if anything comes of the idea. A decision will have to have been made by the time the league managers meet, since that's when the fixture list will be confirmed."
As with every regular opponent, each German club in the south-western division would face the Chinese selection twice during the season, although the results of these games would not count in the standings. Since the Chinese team would have no "home" ground, the German clubs would host them twice and receive a total fee of around 15,000 euros ($16,700) from the Chinese FA. For the young Chinese team, the matches would serve as preparation for the 2020 Olympics which are due to be held in Tokyo.
"It's an outstanding idea. We look forward to the two home games and we'll be sure to roll out the carpet for China's Olympic XI," Stuttgarter Kickers commercial director, Marc-Nicolai Pfeifer, told the mass-circulation daily "Bild."
Kickers Offenbach CEO Christopher Fiori said he envisaged "great marketing opportunities from a match against a Chinese team."
Consistent with Chinese policy
While the news may appear unusual, the plans are consistent with China's more general approach.
"Ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, the British handball team played in the Danish sixth tier to gain experience," Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford, explained to DW. "Ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics (in Beijing), the Chinese women's ice hockey team is playing in Canada. So am I surprised at this announcement? No, I'm not. This sort of move is not unprecedented. In fact it's entirely in keeping with the way the Chinese plan their sporting development."
According to Professor Chadwick, China considers Germany a particularly attractive partner.
"The German way of doing business is much more conducive to development of Chinese football," he said. "The Germans take a much more bilateral view. They believe that if you're going to work successfully, you need to contribute something tangible, which is very similar to the way the Chinese operate. Now, when it comes to securing other commercial or industrial deals with China even outside football, Germany is well placed.
"With this agreement, the Germans are seen as showing regard for Chinese national development, and this ties in with the more general pro-German sentiment in China."
Criticism from fans
While the plans have been welcomed by commercial directors, fans of German football are less enthused, taking to social media to express their displeasure at what they consider yet another step in the perceived over-commercialization of the sport.
But this sort of development may be something fans will have to get used to.
"I think this could be a longer-term proposition," Professor Chadwick said. "China's football development plan states that it wants to be a leading football nation by 2050. When you compare that aim to the current state of Chinese football, it has a long way to go. It still needs assistance, so I can certainly see this developing."
Allegations of corruption
Links between China and German football are already on the rise. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund already organize off-season tours of the Far East to capitalize on the booming football market, while, according to media reports, Cologne striker scorer Anthony Modeste is set to follow in the footsteps of a number of big European names by completing an estimated 35-million-euro transfer to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian. Earlier this month, former Bayer Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt took over at Beijing Guoan.
But a recent investigation by German magazine "Spiegel" uncovered evidence suggesting Chinese betting circles could be involved in match-fixing in European football, and Professor Chadwick confirmed that this is an issue that the Chinese government is keen to clamp down on.
"The Chinese government is investigating allegations of betting irregularities and is concerned that some investors are using football investments as a front for corrupt activity. If assets are held offshore, it's difficult for the Chinese government to do anything about it. President Xi Jinping has made combatting corruption a key pillar of his leadership."
According to "Bild," the involvement of the Chinese XI in the south-western regional league could be officially announced during President Xi's visit to Berlin on July 5.