Chinese football’s governing body has turned to military drills in its latest attempt to fulfil President Xi Jinping’s goal to make the country a great football power by the turn of the century.
Over the weekend, more than 50 of the country’s top under-25 players were taken to a military base in the coastal province of Shandong where they swapped sportswear for camouflage and buzzcuts.
State television channel CCTV showed the players – many who regularly star in China’s top tier Super League – receiving instructions from military trainers and having their heads shaved.
They were also shown sitting in a classroom wearing fatigues while they watched a broadcast of China’s national team play out a scoreless draw with India.
According to the CCTV report, the squad will commence new solider training, ideological education and special forces drills.
In a shock move, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) announced the intensive camp at the beginning of October, declaring the players would be pulled out of their regular club commitments until December 28.
The decision means top tier clubs will be missing some of their best players at the business end of both the Chinese Super League season and for the CFA Cup final.
In announcing the move, the CFA said the two-and-a-half-month camp would “better improve training for outstanding young players and strengthen the reserve talent pool” for the national team.
But some fans decried the move online.
Some said it reflected the death of Chinese football, while many others questioned how military drills and training camps would be better for the players’ development than competitive matches.
“You can’t take 55 players away from the league and expect it not to affect the sport’s integrity,” said Shanghai-based football writer Cameron Wilson on The Chinese Football Podcast.
The CFA’s policy towards young players has changed several times in recent years with many fans blaming the heavy hand of state sports administrators for the unpredictable rule changes.
The regulations have forced top tier clubs to field minimum numbers of under-23 players at the expense of foreign recruits.
The latest measure to bolster young talent through intensive training was preceded by yet another rule change that relaxed the rules.
Speculation is swirling that the purpose of the camp is to create one or two national development teams that would play week to week in either China’s domestic league or even in an eastern European club competition.
China’s government is trying to rapidly improve the performance of the men’s national team, which has only made the World Cup finals once and is seen as a perennial underperformer despite an increasingly lucrative domestic league.
Men in military uniform stand in lines outside, next to a group of men in red uniforms, similarly arranged
A government blueprint released in 2015 set a goal to have 50 million people playing the sport within a decade and for China to be a top international team by 2050.
But long-suffering fans have had little to celebrate since the release of the plan.
China’s scoreless draw with minnows India over the weekend came after a draw with Bahrain last week and a loss to Qatar, and speculation is mounting that national coach Marcello Lippi – who was brought in with much fanfare in 2016 – will likely leave the role after January’s Asian Cup.