Western Australia’s top football agency is exploring expanding its Asian engagement strategy to include a development academy for Chinese youth players, to tap into a groundswell of Chinese interest and investment in the world game.
Over the past two years, top-flight clubs in the Chinese Super League have been collecting some of the world’s best players, with international football superstars Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Oscar and Alex Teixeira among those lured to China.
Australian national players Tim Cahill and Trent Sainsbury have also spent time in China’s top league, which is steadily rising not only in popularity, but also in stature.
Chinese groups have also invested billions of dollars in European clubs in recent times, with AC Milan and Manchester City among the high-profile organisations with significant levels of Chinese ownership.
Increased interest in the sport in China originates from a mandate by President Xi Jinping, who is determined to develop the country into a football superpower – with an ambitious target of winning the 2050 World Cup.
Football West chief executive James Curtis said there was a significant opportunity for WA’s football community to participate in China’s football revolution.
Mr Curtis said Football West was seeking to establish an exchange program, involving sending players, coaches and referees to China, as well as fostering an environment for Chinese players to develop their skills in Perth.
“What we’ve seen, particularly in China, there has been a lot of investment in the top, elite end, but it hasn’t necessarily trickled through to the development programs at a club level,” Mr Curtis told Australia China Business Review.
“When you start looking at Australia’s success on the world stage, we’ve got a small population, yet we’ve now qualified for four world cups in a row, so we must be doing something right on our development pathways.
“The focus of our strategy would be on the youth component and having that exchange.
“There are plenty of places in the world where players can go, this is a place where you could have a long-term exchange program.
“Perth makes sense – you’ve got nice weather, good culture, there is a good structure in place, so I think it will be very successful.
“Chinese athletes could live in Perth, some of our players could be sent up there and it would be an overall cultural experience.”
Mr Curtis said Football West’s plans, which are in the early planning stage and have been developed in collaboration with EY, reflected some of the broader initiatives in place in WA, with businesses from all sectors seeking deeper engagement with China.
WA has a long history of football collaboration with China, beginning back in 1927 when the state’s top players played three matches against China’s best.
Earlier this year, Football West sent a delegation to Shanghai for the Jinshan International Youth Football Tournament, where the WA under-16 youth team played.
Mr Curtis said Football West was considering reducing the amount of funds it used to send teams to tournaments in the eastern states and redistributing towards the Asian region.
Each year, Football West sends 21 state sides from junior to senior levels to various tournaments on the east coast.
“We will also be looking at corporate partnerships and support from government to be able to really maximise these opportunities,” he said.
“Given our time zone and given the economy associated with it, it makes sense for WA football to be engaging with the Asian region and particularly with China.
“If we have an exchange where clubs are investing time, their players and their officials, if there is another pathway for them within a growing football economy, then it would make a lot of sense.”