Sun sees new dawn for beleaguered Chinese soccer
Sun Jihai, the first Chinese soccer player to score in the English Premier League, believes a new national plan to develop soccer in China could restore the fortunes of the game in the country.
The 38- year- old former Manchester City player was speaking before being inducted in the English Soccer Hall of Fame in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping at his former club’s City Soccer Academy on Oct 23.
The president has endorsed the new plan, which will involve building 20,000 national soccer training schools, with a further 30,000 planned.
“Soccer in China is not progressing as expected. The soccer fans in China are far from fully satisfied with the Chinese national soccer team, in particular,” Sun said.
“Now the Chinese government has provided us with a plan. I believe that soccer in China will progress in the longer term, under the plan and with the right leadership. It will require time to develop, however, and we must understand that.”
The performance of China’s national team is a major disappointment to many Chinese. It has only once qualified for the World Cup, when it was held in South Korea and Japan in 2002.
China failed to score a single goal in the tournament and was eliminated after losing all three group games. Sun himself was injured when he picked up an ankle injury in match against Costa Rica.
Xi, a keen soccer fan, said in Manchester that China needed to learn from Britain, which he described as the “birthplace of modern soccer”.
Sun, who now plays in China’s Super League for Chongqing Lifan and joins British legends Bobby Moore, George Best and Gary Lineker in the hall of fame, said Chinese soccer needed to learn from all advanced soccer playing nations.
“It is not just Britain that China needs to learn from but other strong soccering nations such as Germany,” he said.
The former Manchester City defender believes the president taking time out in his busy schedule on his state visit to the UK was in itself an important statement.
“It shows how important soccer is to President Xi, which gives hope to the soccer community in China. It is very encouraging to players. It is rare to have a president visit a soccer club. I think it will be good for Manchester City, too, and will boost the club’s popularity in China.”
Sun said soccer has been held back in China by lack of investment in developing younger players, with too many resources going to the national team and to the top players in the Chinese leagues.
“In the past, China focused more on the Chinese national soccer team, and the first teams of the soccer clubs. More than 95 percent of the available funds in most clubs just go to the first team and not to future development.
“They rarely focus on training and developing younger players. There are fewer kids joining soccer teams. The quality of current players in China is just not high enough. We need to do better.”
Sun began his own career playing for Dalian Shide, making his first appearance at the age of 17.
After winning four league titles with the club, he was lured to London club Crystal Palace by former England manager Terry Venables alongside another Chinese player, Fan Zhiyi, who later also played for Dundee and Cardiff City.
Sun moved to Manchester City in 2002, where he also became the first Chinese player to score in the English Premier League.
During his six years there, he made 130 appearances as a defender. He finished his career in the UK at Sheffield United in the second- tier championship before returning to play in China.
In September he was appointed club ambassador in China for Manchester City. In this role, he will be involved in promoting the work the club is doing in the local communities in China as well as engage with City fans in China at events and on social media.
“This is the second time I’m joining the club. I am very happy to have this opportunity, being an ambassador, which is a very different role. I am very much looking forward to working with the professional marketing and management team at City to promote soccer in China and to work with City fans once again.”
Sun is one of only five Chinese players to play in the English Premier League. The others were Li Tie and Li Weifeng, both at Everton, Zheng Zhi at Charlton Athletic and Dong Fangzhuo, who made only one appearance for Manchester United. There are none currently.
Sun said the problem is the standard of Chinese soccer, which has slipped in recent years. “Not many of the current players have the ability to play in a league like the English Premier League, which is a problem.”
He believes the national training schools in China could make a huge difference to grassroots soccer and could be a breeding ground for China’s great players of the future.
“Teenager training is very important. It is like building a tower. No matter how pretty your design of the building is, if the foundation is not well done, the tower will fall easily. We must build new foundations.”
Contact the writers through andrewmoody@chinadaily. com.cn
Sun Jihai and Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan celebrate after the team won League Division One in 2002.