Sun sees new dawn for be­lea­guered Chi­nese soc­cer

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By AN­DREW MOODY and ZHANG CHUNYAN

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

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Sun Ji­hai and Manch­ester City man­ager Kevin Keegan cel­e­brate af­ter the team won League Divi­sion One in 2002.

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