Soccer Boy is one of the nation’s most popular comics. Cristiano Ronaldo hawks local weight-loss pills; David Beckham’s unlicensed image scowls on packs of condoms; and over 24 million Chinese watched the 2010 World Cup on television. China loves football. Its men’s national team, however, just doesn't know how to show it: having failed to qualify for the past three World Cups, China is now FIFA-ranked 96th in the world, between tiny Benin and tinier Qatar.
“Chinese teams are not mature or courageous enough. Their technique is not good,” says Zhang Linyan, a 13-year-old Sichuanese footballer at Evergrande Academy, near Guangzhou. “But technique can be trained.” With 68 hectares and more than 50 playing fields, Evergrande is the biggest football training ground in the world. It accepts no foreign students; the 2,300-strong student body is recruited from across China (except Tibet), and one out of three little footballers are on scholarship. To remind them why, billionaire founder Xu Jiayin installed a giant World Cup trophy replica at the school entryway.
Winning the golden trophy is an express wish of China’s president, and Xu thinks he can grant it within a decade. “Our strategy is to turn teenagers into a national team,” he announced at Evergrande’s 2012 campus ribbon cutting, “making stars in China, Asia, and the world.” According to Evergrande’s credo, the only obstacle is education. “Here they’ve always emphasized individual physical conditioning,” explains Evergrande’s training director and Spanish ex-footballer Fernando Sánchez Cipitria. “On the contrary, we do everything through the football like in Spain, so that they learn playfulness, creativity and how to make strategic decisions during a match.”
Spanish football is known for a highly technical, pass-heavy style that must be inculcated early. By FIFA rankings, three of the five best footballers in the world since 2010 are graduates of Barcelona’s youth academy, and Iker Casillas, one of the best goalies in FIFA history, began training in Real Madrid’s castilla academy aged 9. Following Spain’s example, Evergrande hired all 22 head coaches, including Cipitria, straight from Real Madrid. They are assisted by 140 Chinese coaches, who do everything from running training sessions to taking homesick kids out for snacks on weekends. Evergrande athletes are also offered Spanish classes during morning lessons and, among Sichuanese, Cantonese and halal options, may choose to eat lunch in the school’s Spanish cafeteria.
All the same, only 15 percent of the student body will become professional footballers, according to Cipitria. Zhang, considered the academy’s best player and already a member of the national under-14 team, is one of them: “I just want to win. When my team loses, I want to play again immediately.” Unfortunately, that skill and ambition won’t help China win the same World Cup that Evergrande has promised. Like only 99 other Evergrande students, Zhang is a girl.
If your club is short on cash, recruit children. From the age of seven, promising kids can be trained as footballers and then sold to other clubs for millions. The profits usually go toward paying a club’s A-team salaries, so select the next members of your Under-10 team wisely.
Countries are like brands. “It’s much easier selling, for example, a crap Brazilian than a brilliant Mexican,” Brazilian agent Fabio Menezes once confessed to British sportswriter Alex Bellos.
On average, adult midfielders, forwards and defenders measure 180cm, with goalies clearing 187. But smallish players can be stretched: Lionel Messi’s first contract with Barcelona specified a growth hormone treatment for the 13-year-old.
Beware fair hair when you’re scouting a game. Light colors tend to catch the eye, creating a blond-skewed visual memory that can lead scouts to wrongly overvalue blond players.
Kids with ring fingers longer than their pointer fingers are hormonally predisposed to athletic competition, according to UK researcher John Manning.
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the second-most expensive player in the world, has 62-cm thighs capable of launching a ball four times faster than the Apollo 11 space rocket accelerated at blast-off.
Stepping style is the basis for everything else. “Is he on his forefeet, running lightly?” says Ronald de Jong, a scout for Dutch club Ajax. “If not, we might have to change his motor patterns.”
Genital development can indicate levels of aggression-boosting hormone testosterone. Since 2010, Chinese club Tianjin Locomotive seeks “short but thick” boys with “taut scrotums.”