BEIJING — Twenty thousand soccer schools in China by 2020 — and 50,000 by 2025.
That's what Chinese President and self-declared soccer fan, Xi Jinping, has in mind for the future of the beautiful game in China.
Since the president announced his 50-point plan last year, there's been a lot of talk about China looking to dominate world soccer — maybe even compete for the prized World Cup by 2050.
But Rowan Simons, Chairman of China Club Soccer, says the policy is much more than just that: "The 20,000 schools, host the World Cup. Win the World Cup. That's easy, isn't it? No," he quips. "I hope people can get that in to their heads that this is a historic epoch-making policy change in China that throws Soviet ideology on its head ... It frees a single sport from government control and says the people and experts should take control of it and build it."
Indeed, the plan does call for separating the Chinese Soccer Association from the government. But contrary to popular belief, it isn't a blueprint for China to win the World Cup by 2050.
Yet it does mention bidding to host the men's World Cup and for the men's team to become globally competitive. But Rowan says that is still not the main purpose.
"It has always been the problem before that China wants to win the World Cup and it has to win the next World Cup in 4 years or 6 years or 8 years," Simons explains. "This is the first plan that says no we have a long-term 30-year journey toward even thinking about that as a result. And actually that wouldn't be the result we're looking for."
Instead the "definition of success" for China's soccer leaders will be millions of people participating in the game because they enjoy it, Simons states.
Kids practicing in Yuzhong County, China — Photo: Chen Bin/Xinhua/ZUMA
Chinese parents can be reluctant about allowing their children to play a lot of sports, fearing it will interfere with their studies. But Xi Jinping's 50-point plan has already made soccer a mandatory part of physical education in primary and secondary schools. So if students don't have time for soccer outside school, now they do when they go to class.
Lv Fang's son is a member of China's Club Soccer. She says playing the sport is a good way for her son to strike a balance.
"The balance is perfect. I don't think sport will impact his studies," Lv says. "If anything it can help improve them. If they want time to play then they have to finish their homework and studies as early as possible. The efficiency of studying gets improved."
What's missing from China's grand plans right now, says Rowan, are much-needed coaches. China Club Soccer has 14 qualified foreign coaches, but there are very few qualified Chinese coaches.
So getting proper trainers in 20,000 schools is going to be a major challenge.
Simons explains, "In the western model, the European model, there may be a maximum of 20 kids per coach. But the Chinese teacher will tell us 'I have 45 who come this week.' There may be a standard hour of lessons in certain countries. In China there's often only 37 minutes left once kids have arrived so session plans don't fit."
And even with enough coaches to train Chinese youngsters, there aren't enough youth leagues for them to play in.
Soccer coach David Webber tells me the chances to compete that do exist are sporadic at best. "It's not like you go to training on a Tuesday and Thursday then you play on a Saturday. There might be a school competition that takes place over a couple of weeks and then the kids will just go back to training," Webber says. "It's certainly something that they want to grow and clubs are trying to push for because what's the point in training if you're not going to play?"
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty in the plan is Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, given that his term in office will end in 2022. So what if his successor doesn't carry the plan forward?
Rowan says ultimately the responsibility lies with the Chinese people themselves. "Ten years of a president who's giving this level of support and direction, if soccer itself and if the people themselves can't make soccer part of their culture and grow it in the way he's laid out then China, I think, probably has to give up. And I would have to consider giving up."