Many Chinese professional football clubs are located in the east and south side of the country – provinces like Guangdong, Shandong and Jiangsu are among the most developed areas of China. The CSL has three clubs in the north east known as Dongbei. But in Heilongiang, China’s most northerly province, there is only one team and they currently play in League Two. Liaoning province is much better off for clubs – it was home to the greatest dynasties of Chinese football during the ’80 and ’90s: the north East Tigers of Liaoning FC, who in 1990 became the first Chinese club to win a continental competition, and Dalian Shide, the most successful club in the history of Chinese football that doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays, Shenyang has three clubs, Liaoning in the CSL, Urban and Dongjin in League Two, whilst Dalian has three teams: Yigfang and Transcendence in League One and Boyang in League Two.
If we look at the map of professional Chinese football (covering the CSL, CL1 and CL2), we can see that there are four clubs in Beijing, two in Tianjin (Quanjian and Teda in the CSL), Five in Shanghai and six in Guangdong. In the Chinese Super League there are only two clubs in the west: Chongqing Lifan and the newly promoted Guizhou Zhicheng. In League One this number grows to four, with Wuhan Zall and three clubs in the border provinces of Yunnan, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
China is changing from having an economy based on quantity to one based on quality, under a plan known as “Made in China 2025”. The focus is to be less on industry and more on the tertiary sector and services: this is what is happening in the east side, where the cost of labour is high and has reached the level of Greece and Portugal. This is causing heavy industry to move to the west side of the country, which is now the fastest growing region thanks to two large scale projects, the “Go West”, a plan to develop the occidental provinces of China and “One Belt One Road”, which aims to connect China to the rest of the world via a vast logistical network focused on stretching across Eurasia.
China is now aiming to become a football superpower and attract investment and expand its influence via soft power. But despite East China having more professional clubs and infrastructure, if you walk the streets of Beijing or Shanghai you can see only basketball courts. Football pitches are difficult to spot as most of are located inside public or International schools. It is fair to say that football is not a big participation sport in large Chinese cities. Yet still, football investments from European football clubs and academies are still concentrated on eastern China.
In recent times there has been much activity focused on bringing academies to China, particularly those of the big European clubs. And yet, the late, great Johan Cruyff once said, “The football talent born in the street”. So if we want to predict a future for Chinese football, the federation should take a look at the west, far from the bustling metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai.
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