You thought China spends billions on bullet trains and airports? But, this spending is the biggest experiment in its history

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Published: July 14, 2017 4:48:52 PM

It’s barely five years since Mads Davidsen arrived in China to coach kids at soccer.

Mads Davidsen, china, Chinese Super League, Shanghai SIPG,  sports industry in china,  Manchester United ,North American Soccer League, Shandong Luneng, englandBefore President Xi Jinping’s government published document No. 46, making sports part of China’s economic plan, domestic soccer was largely an afterthought. (Shanghai SIPG FC: Twitter)

It’s barely five years since Mads Davidsen arrived in China to coach kids at soccer. Now the 34-year-old Dane has found himself helping run one of the most valuable teams in the professional Chinese Super League. The breathtaking speed of change in China has reached the world’s most popular game. It’s turned transplants like Davidsen into accidental pioneers helping to create a new, staggering $740 billion sports industry by 2025, underpinned by a full-frontal assault on soccer.

Davidsen’s club, Shanghai SIPG, didn’t exist in its current form until a little more than three years ago. But almost overnight, teams were reborn with resources to rival even the English Premier League teams bankrolled by Arab sheikhs and Russian oligarchs. With the current season in full swing, today he oversees all soccer development at a team with such players as Brazil midfielder Oscar, whose transfer for €60 million ($67 million) made him the most-expensive import in the Chinese project so far.

“I’m not exaggerating, we were sitting down with the guys setting up the club, literally with a pen, saying, ‘how many balls do you need, how many cones do you need,’” said Davidsen, whose last job at home in Denmark was coaching one of the top youth sides. “They literally had nothing, but were willing to learn and invest.”

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Before President Xi Jinping’s government published document No. 46, making sports part of China’s economic plan, domestic soccer was largely an afterthought. With backing from the country’s biggest businessmen and state-controlled companies, the goal is to build a league than can compete with the grandest in size and wealth while producing a national team able to contend for a World Cup.

That lofty ambition dwarfs any previous efforts of countries with little or no soccer pedigree. While the North American Soccer League took off in the 1970s, it flamed out within a decade. The U.S.’s second attempt, Major League Soccer, has taken 20 years to gain traction. Japan also tried, but neither effort brought the financial firepower that China does.

For Xi, soccer is now an integral part of China’s transformation into a global powerhouse, said Liu Dongfeng, professor at the school of economics and management at the Shanghai University of Sport. “It’s his version of making China great again,” he said. “Football is not necessarily the means to that end, but at least football should at least match that status. It’s really hard to find the correct word to describe it—it’s massive. There’s no parallel.”

Davidsen’s Shanghai team was reincarnated at the end of 2014, when state-controlled Shanghai International Port Group bought 40 players from another club and took its place in the 16-member Chinese Super League. Other teams are backed by real estate companies, conglomerates, and a health company. In the case of Shandong Luneng Taishan, the owner is a subsidiary of the enormous State Grid Corporation of China, the world’s largest utility.

As well as coaches and players, dietitians, technical experts, and data analysts have all been imported. Among them is Daniel Stenz. The German recently swapped life in Vancouver, working with the Canadian city’s Major League Soccer team, for Jinan, a city of 7 million about 200 miles south of Beijing. The spending is mind-blowing, said Stenz, 36, who joined Shandong Luneng as a technical director in April.

“No budget!” Stenz exclaimed when discussing the resources at his disposal. Vancouver’s player payroll was $8 million—about half what Shandong Luneng is paying Italian striker Graziano Pelle. “If we need it, then you get it.”

The team’s youth academy features 30 practice fields, while the first team’s facilities, situated 125 miles away, include a treadmill for every player, an altitude chamber, and an ice room. He was also enticed by the facilities, the project—and the paycheck: “Of course it’s high, because Vancouver was a very nice place, and expensive,” he said. “I could have chosen England over China.”

Clutching a bunch of flowers, he was about to leave for the Beijing airport to collect his wife, Natalia, arriving for the first time in China with their two children. In a three-bedroom apartment in one of the club’s two housing complexes, they will be neighbors with such stars as former Newcastle United striker Papiss Cisse. Pelle opted for a club-provided home outside the complex. Chinese players live in the one-bedroom apartments.

Even with seemingly endless resources, rapid growth and investment are rarely a smooth ride. There’s ever-changing bureaucracy as Chinese authorities tinker with regulations governing the number of foreign players each team can field, which is currently three. They also forced through quotas on playing athletes younger than 23 and added a 100 percent tax on any loss-making team buying a non-Chinese player for the sake of a star name.

Foreign advisers and suppliers, meanwhile, have often hawked their services at inflated prices, said Stenz. “Everyone is taking advantage,” he said. Then there’s the sheer scale of the task. Money can buy overseas talent, but it can’t fill a national team. Professional sport is rarely seen as a career in China. Pan Guohong, a headmaster at the Tangdong Primary School in the southeastern city of Guangzhou, said parents favor academic subjects and fear injuries could derail prospects in China’s fiercely competitive school system.

Pan, who has been coaching soccer for 26 years, said he’d like his six-month-old baby to play someday, if he can persuade the child’s mother. “My wife is fighting against me, she’s not supporting me,” Pan said. Ambition also can’t create a European-size fan base overnight among people still more used to watching giants such as Manchester United and AC Milan on television.

At a Shanghai SIPG match in early May, the team trounced struggling Liaoning Whowin 4-1. The 57,000-capacity stadium was about one-quarter full, albeit with giant banners in English and Mandarin behind one of the goals and fans with megaphones directing chants. They included one that exclaimed the team is “the pride of Shanghai” and involved fans bouncing up and down in unison.

The foreign players dominated a sloppy game, with Hulk at one point berating Lin Chuangyi for a misplaced pass, causing his teammate’s shoulders to slump. Surely there is soccer talent hiding among the 1.3 billion Chinese, but the national team currently sits 77th in FIFA’s world rankings, just behind Jamaica, the Caribbean island known more for its sprinters and cricketers.

“I would say that the level is very poor,” Harold Mayne-Nicholls, a former Chilean soccer federation chief who was visiting China, said after watching another game the same weekend. “In my country they would be at the bottom of university level.” For Davidsen, the game’s development in China has already been staggering. Dressed in a team polo shirt and jeans, the tall, athletic Dane arrived in 2012 to work at a private academy in Shanghai run by a former Danish national team player. His break came a year later when former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson picked him as his assistant at Guangzhou R&F, the city’s second club.

In 2014, the two men then moved on to Shanghai SIPG. After Eriksson left, Davidsen advised the club to hire former Tottenham and Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas as his replacement in November. Returning to Guangzhou earlier this year, Davidsen pointed out the transformation. When he’d first arrived with Eriksson, fields were poor, training facilities were in disrepair, fan culture was nonexistent, and local games were hard to find on television.

“Today, it’s the opposite in every way,” Davidsen said, indicating the skyscrapers, department stores, and coffee shops where not long ago there were empty fields. “It’s very difficult to explain because it’s like two different worlds.”

After telling their paymasters in Shanghai how many balls and cones were required, Davidsen and the team’s management compiled a list of players to boost the team’s performances and profile. The first statement of intent came with the purchase of Hulk, a Brazilian striker who arrived for more than €40 million ($46 million) and a salary on a par with the highest in soccer. Hulk was persuaded to move to China on a Skype call, Davidsen said.

Players such as Hulk are expected to create a buzz, inspire children to play soccer, and bring new fans to stadiums and screens. Of the four jerseys on sale outside the East Asia Sports & Recreation Center where SIPG plays its home games, three belonged to the team’s Brazilian imports. The fourth bore the name of Wu Lei, a local favorite.

The league will ultimately be judged for its ability to nurture Chinese talent. Davidsen reckons it will take a generation before China reaps the onfield results of its giant soccer experiment. He’s committed to staying as long as the project retains its momentum. To speed up development, Shanghai sent an entire Under 18 team and its coaches to play a season in Brazil. Earlier this month, the German soccer federation said it may invite China’s national Under 20 team to play in one of its lower leagues. “We are all here because of the project,” said Davidsen. “Yes, I’m paid by SIPG, but why is SIPG in this industry? Because of the project.”

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