Zhang Lu: Chinese Football Needs Driven by Interest, not Greed

Zhang Lu, a well-known football commentator and former general manager of Guoan Club, talked about his views on Chinese football in an exclusive interview with Workers’ Daily.

Q: Why has the level of Chinese football fallen instead of rising in recent years?

A: From the performance of national teams and professional leagues at all levels in recent years, the overall level of Chinese football has not only not improved, but also declined compared with the past and neighboring countries. The most important reason is the lack of football players, which is the root cause of all problems.

In the 1990s, there were only 10,000 elementary school students playing football year-round in the country’s 20 designated ‘key football cities’, and by 2000 to 2004, the number might have dropped to about 5,000. In Japan, this number is no less than 600,000. It is because of the small number of children that played football year-round at this stage. The number of registered players is also small, making it difficult to select a large number of talented and outstanding players. The consequence is reflected in the results of competitive sports that have gone all the way down in recent years.

Q: In recent years, the development of domestic professional football league has faced a lot of difficulties. How do you think the professional league should be regulated?

A: Over the years, the operation of many teams lacks an organic cycle, when the economic benefits of investors are damaged, the survival of the team will be a problem. The future of the Chinese football league should truly be professional. Objectively speaking, the CFA has not turned a blind eye to the league’s operational crisis in recent years. Now, the policies such as strict club access and forcing them to settle salary arrears are promoting the healthy development of the league.

About youth football development

Q: Why is the youth football population in China low for a long time, is it because kids don’t love playing football?

A: In fact, many children love to play football, but the main reason why there are so few children playing football is that we have been going in the wrong direction for a long time.

At the elementary school level, many schools organize varsity teams for the purpose of getting results. However, in the lower grades, it is hard to see the children’s sense of timing, ball sense and other football talents. Many physical education teachers rely on their own feelings, such as thinking that being tall and fast is suitable for football. They formed a team on this simple basis to practice hard.

I have researched that some elementary school teams have even longer training hours than professional athletes. In this way, many children lose their interest in football prematurely. A more serious consequence is that they train for a long time on the school field, which also indirectly deprives other children who may be interested in football of the opportunity to practice. The long hours of hard practice also make it difficult for children to balance their classes. As a result, more and more parents are against their children playing football at school. My observation is that a child who doesn’t play football in elementary school has a low probability of playing football after secondary school, so it is important to expose as many children as possible to football in elementary school.

Q: How should we mobilize more young people to participate in football?

A: Simply put, it’s about removing the utilitarian mindset. The vast majority of kids don’t become football talents, and it’s important to give those who don’t end up on the professional football path a reason to play. What reason do you need? Football is one of the educational tools to promote the overall improvement of human quality, and the main purpose of developing school football is for the health and happiness of children. Physical education teachers should be good at guiding children to fully enjoy the game of football and gain health, happiness, and a sense of accomplishment in the process.

Q: How do you think we should focus on school football and youth training?

A: The key is to remove the bad consequences of early specialization and prematurely “wasting” children’s training, and to make football and cultural studies compatible. I suggest that elementary and junior high school students practice twice a week for no more than an hour and a half each time, with one game per week and no ranking. Such an arrangement would not interfere with children’s studies and remove the utilitarian aspect.

I believe that school football and youth training are two different things. In my opinion, youth training is an improvement stage, not the main one, and getting school football right is the foundation, which is more important for Chinese football at the moment. As for how to improve youth training, countries with good football development have ready-made experience that can be learned from, the key is to implement it in place and make it work for a long time.

Developing Football in Society

Q: What is the significance of developing Chinese football in a social context nowadays?

A: In addition to grasping the fundamentals and getting more young people involved in football, as we have just mentioned, what cannot be ignored is the role of social football in accumulating the cultural atmosphere of football. The complete top professional league system of all football powerhouses is built on a strong foundation of semi-professional and local tournaments in the regions.

Q: What should be done to develop social football or grassroots football?

A: In my opinion, domestic grassroots football associations have been absent in this area for a long time, and the majority of local leagues have not been established so far. There are places where this is done well, but very few. I know of an example where Zhidan County in Shaanxi Province has been effective in building an amateur league.

The importance of county and prefecture-level football tournaments is the convenience of organizing leagues that are close to the general public. If one tenth of the nearly 3,000 county-level administrative units in the country could establish a well-developed amateur league system, I think Chinese football would be a different story.

Q: How should Chinese football actively save itself?

A: The most important thing is to reverse the perception of football, to change the model from greed-driven to interest-driven, and to change the wrong orientation of rushing to achieve results, which has been the case for so many years. In the process of grasping the reserve talents, we should resolutely abandon the mentality of quick success and profit, and build the pathway of reserve talents training and growth one step at a time. Secondly, we should give full play to the power of the authorities, the market and society, and establish a “trinity” of social football development system and operating mechanism.