INTERVIEW-With one eye on footballing future, China switches focus to youth
With one eye on perhaps hosting a future World Cup, China is set to switch its focus from expensive foreign imports to the stars of the future by staging its own version of the Gothia Cup, the world-famous Swedish youth tournament.
Expected to be launched later in October, the first Gothia Cup China tournament is set to take place in Shenyang in 2016, with the local government investing over $15 million in infrastructure to make it happen.
"The interest and support comes from the very top echelons of Chinese society, and there is a huge movement behind it," tournament ambassador Pelle Blohm told Reuters in an interview about the project.
"President (Xi) Jinping is a big soccer fan, and the combination of political and commercial support is a powerful one."
A former professional footballer himself, Blohm became one of the first westerners to play in China in 1996 when he joined Dalian Wanda, going on to win the league title and earning the nickname "The Great Wall" thanks to his tenacious tackling.
Still fondly remembered in Dalian, Blohm believes that even though the game has come a long way since he played there, the investment and focus on youth means that China is on the verge of unleashing its vast potential.
"There is a huge impetus now to develop the game in schools and universities, and to open youth academies," the 48-year-old said.
"There is also a desire to develop players aged from 19 to 25 and to catch up with the more developed nations in terms of playing structures."
Blohm, who documented his experiences in China in a Swedish-language book entitled "Pioneer in the Middle Kingdom", says big-name imports such as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka often struggled to adapt to Chinese culture, and increasing the level of home-grown talent will be an enormous help.
"Until now, there simply hasn't been a big enough pool of players for China to choose from, and that has hampered progress. This tournament and the interest and investment it attracts will change that once and for all," Blohm said.
First held in the city of Gothenburg in 1975, Sweden's Gothia Cup has grown into a monster festival of youth football.
The 2015 event saw over 40,000 players representing 1754 teams score 18,042 goals on 110 pitches, with over 400,000 spectators grabbing the chance to cast an eye over possible future stars from 74 countries.
For now, the ambitions of Gothia Cup China are more modest, but Blohm says that the goal is to be the biggest youth football tournament in the world within a few years.
Documents seen by Reuters suggest a massive program of investment in infrastructure, with dozens of new pitches and facilities being built.
Covering 460,000 square meters, the new Gothia Centre will house a 60,000-seater stadium, two practice pitches and a dozen tennis courts, with a slew of other sites around the city earmarked for new soccer fields.
Participants in the tournament will stay at the Gothia Campus, which organisers say will be able to cater to 29,000 guests.
Ultimately, Blohm believes China would like to host the FIFA World Cup -- but only if they are capable of putting out a competitive team that won't embarrass a proud sporting nation.
"I think that is the long-term plan, and also the reason for the focus on the need to develop young players," Blohm said.
"If they do host the World Cup, they don't want to enter with a bad team -- they want to have a chance."