YOUNG FOOTBALLERS: The Beijing-based Silver Tide Football Club practices dribbling footballs with their coach (GONG JIAJUN)
Youngsters take to the field
Chinese President Xi Jinping stated three wishes in regard to football back in 2011: For China to reach the World Cup, to one day host the Cup and, ultimately, to win the coveted trophy.
The nation should focus more on promoting football amongst young athletes, President Xi said in March 2014, after taking time out from his first state visit to Europe to watch the Sino-German Junior Football Friendship Match in Berlin Stadium.
Many have posited that younger players may be the key to revitalizing football in China. However, the current state of affairs does not inspire much optimism. Despite massive audiences for the World Cup, China's football-playing population has long faced a huge decline. Between 1990-95, there were 650,000 registered players across China. By 2007, that number had stood at only 30,000. Similarly, in the 1990s, there were 4,300 football training schools across the country; while only 20 were still operational in 2007, National Business Daily reported.
Luckily, the number of student football players is on the rise, and in December 2012 stood at 190,000, said Liu Peng, head of General Administration of China Sports, the top government agency responsible for sports in the nation. In Liu's view, China must work harder to facilitate football education in its schools and make it more accessible to children.
Gao Chao, 47, a football coach, has thrown himself into promoting the sport among children since 1996.
Gao was a football player from an early age. Eventually, he was able to quit his steady job and open the Silver Tide Football Club in collaboration with Beijing No. 18 Middle School. Most of his students are between the ages of 5 and 13.
"I love football. I hope children can improve their health and learn the spirit of teamwork from the sport," Gao told Beijing Review, regarding his purpose for opening the club. However, during the decline of the Chinese football league, Gao also encountered a decreased interest in his club. "A few years ago, there were only a handful of children learning football in my club," Gao said.
"China does not have an established system for the development of football players. I often worry about the future of my students. After finishing their training in my club, some of them want to become professional players. But many child athletes from working-class families cannot afford the expensive fees for receiving further training in a league club," Gao said.
Today, parents and their children don't expect to make a career out of football. They just hope children can fall in love with the sport, Gao said.
"When more youngsters devote their talents to football, it will be possible to better develop China's adult leagues and build a strong national team, which will in turn help us to reach the World Cup eventually. It is like constructing a pyramid: Without a large support system at the base, we cannot reach the top," said Gao.
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