I have the past 1½ year lived in Shanghai, China as Technical Director of the Ebbe Sand Academy – the first international elite academy in the big Chinese city with 23 million people and Match Analyzer and Scout under Sven Göran Eriksson at Chinese club Guangzhou R&F. It has been a fantastic journey and now it’s time to analyze, reflect, and tell about my time in China.
Before moving to China, I created a two sided goal setting analysis for myself. One part was related to the football aspect and the other one related to the challenge outside the pitch in terms of culture, language, etc. I did a lot of research and talked/interviewed relevant people with experience building up football academies all over the World working in different cultures to be as prepared as possible.
The football related aspect
It has been very interesting to train youth players in China and to see, analyze and write about Chinese football this last year. I have a better picture of Chinese and Asian football and I know China has the chance to move ahead in the World of football, but they need changes and long thinking to do so.
At our academy, I have experienced a lot of interesting things, but one of the most obvious ones is that Chinese players have problems with decision making and self-thinking. It’s a society issue and a challenge that relates back to the school system and the general thinking in China. China is extremely good at sports where you can prepare everything before the game. Table tennis, badminton, swimming, and gymnastics are some of the sports, where China is fantastic. But in team sports and in sports where creativity and change of decisions are crucial – they cannot compete on the highest level - yet.
It’s not too late though. The latest youth academy investment from Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou Fully (R&F) and the influence of IMG in Chinese football can move the country forward, but we need patience and long thinking to win this fight.
As a foreigner column writer for hupu.com, I have also experienced that the Chinese football fans actually want to learn more about the football tactics. It has been a pleasure to help “educate” the Chinese fans to understand how a coach is thinking and how a team is structured and organized. This is a solid step, and the next step is to pass on the same knowledge to the next generation of young Chinese players.
In the Chinese Super League (CSL), I see a solid progression, but the game is still too slow and with a too big focus on the defensive part of the game. Too few teams take chances in their matches, and this is not developing the football in China.
Another issue is that almost every offensive quality is created by foreigners. Nice for the fans, but not nice for the Chinese national team. And look at the national team – they have no real quality strikers and last year the top 10 leading top scorer list were all foreigners. This aspect also needs to change if China wants success in the future. Offensive players are not more important than the defensive players, but their role is far more difficult. It will always be easier to defend – than to attack.
The anthropological related aspect
In general; I love my life in China. Shanghai is a fantastic city, the Chinese people are so kind and nice, and there are a lot of opportunities in this big country, so I don’t want to leave if I don’t have to.
My mission was to change Chinese football and help the next generation to a better level, and this will take some years/decades to accomplish. Some of the challenges, I have faced is also outside the pitch as for example language, culture, traditions, and norms.
Several times a week, I get private Chinese lessons, and I can feel from week to week that I’m improving my Chinese. This is extremely important in terms of showing respect for the country and society and to be able to say some basic things to my Chinese coaches and the players. But of course it’s difficult in the beginning, because using a translator; I never know what he is translating or how he is saying things? Can he translate my way of saying things? – I think a lot of points will be lost in the translation.
In terms of culture issues, I have faced some interesting debates. In Denmark, people do sports because they love it. We often talk about ‘how to create hunger in paradise” in elite sports of Denmark, because everyone has a good life and mostly do sports for fun in the beginning.
Some places in China – this is different. Kids play football to get out of poverty or lack of academic chances or because their parents decide that they have to do it. This is not a problem, but it means that the inside motivation is gone (less joy), and they only play due to outside motivation meaning factors as fame, money, respect for the family, and due to a fight to get a better life. As a coach, you need to respect that fact and develop your coaching, so it fits the people and players, you are working with. You cannot just fly in from Denmark and copy everything you did there.
You have to adjust and find the right model, so it’s your philosophy developed together with the mentality of the current players. I have seen a lot of training and games in China, and in general the training methods are not good or professional enough if China wants to compete on an international level. There is too much focus on the physical aspect of the game, running exercise without the ball, and not enough technical training.
At some places in China – the philosophy and tone is still very harsh and this does not develop the creative players. This philosophy creates a machine, but in modern football, we need players, who can think, react, and handle pressure and new situations all the time. And here is a big challenge for China to make that change.