Here at All Out Football, we pride ourselves on providing football fans with a platform to voice their opinions. Whether it be through writing articles or literally voicing your opinion in a podcast, we welcome football fans from all over the country to tell us their story.
I was fortunate enough to speak to a West Ham fan who made himself known to nearly the entire fan base in September. Xiang Pan – better known as Pierrex – became something of a sensation on Twitter when a parody account made Mark Noble second guess the nationality of one of his biggest fans. For those still unaware, Xiang is Chinese and definitely not South Korean. Aside from being a Chinese West Ham fan, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Xiang. At 30 years old, he works in vintage motorcycle parts sales, but it is evident he lives for football just like the rest of us. Talking to him, you immediately become aware that this is a guy who knows his stuff; impressing in both his tactical nous and realistic optimism. His love for West Ham is unique and genuinely revealing. In this part, Xiang talks about football closer to home. From shedding light on the Chinese Super League to the impact big-money spending has had on the national team, Xiang provides a fascinating insight on football across the world.
On improving the popularity of English teams in China…
The Premier League continues to be a hugely successful global brand. In China, it remains more popular than the Chinese Super League. Not all clubs enjoy the same level of support overseas, especially those outside of the ‘big’ teams. Football is cultural. The number of Mexicans I have seen at West Ham since Chicharito’s arrival has been staggering. It simply isn’t something you see with English football fans – how many traveled to Madrid to watch Michael Owen turn out for the Spanish giants?
In contrast, there is a greater sense of pride in homegrown players doing well outside of China. Indeed, Xiang believes that the easiest way for an English team to boost its support in China would be to have a Chinese player on their books, identifying West Brom as one such team to have benefited from this. Zhang Yuning – a 20 year old summer signing – is yet to make an appearance for Tony Pulis’ side or his loan club, Werder Bremen, but he continues to be regarded as something of a wonderkid and he has already impressed at Vitesse and on the international stage. Unfortunately, Xiang does not believe Yuning will ever get a chance in the Premier League, but concedes there is always a chance for a striker. Xiang also identifies Zhang Xizhe – formerly of VfL Wolfsburg – as a player talented enough to potentially make the switch to the Premier League.
‘The commercial market is big’ he continues, ‘if a club has a Chinese player… it will open the market in China’. It does not even have to be a permanent deal. A loan deal or even allowing a Chinese player to train with a Premier League team would be ‘big news’.
On the Chinese Super League…
The CSL often inspires groans among football fans in England. On the surface, it is too rich for its own good, luring the likes of Hulk and Oscar (Shanghai SIPG), Alex Teixeira and Ramires (Jiangsu Suning), and Carlos Tevez (Shanghai Greenland Shenhua) away from some of the biggest leagues in Europe. Xiang admits that these clubs do not always follow the rules, but they are able to get away with it because they are backed by state-owned enterprises. According to Xiang, around half of the sixteen teams in the CSL are backed by the state to some extent. Criticism of the big-money spending is not as prominent in China, except for when results are not going well for the team in question.
Admittedly new rules imposed by the Chinese government have attempted to restrict this. Using a £35 million Andy Carroll as an example, a CSL team would now have to pay £70 million for his services with the second £35 million being given to the football development fund. It is an expensive levy (at least for transfers over a certain amount, lower fees demand the same amount be invested into their youth system), but its motives are in the right place. Similarly, the number of overseas players in a matchday squad has been reduced from four to three. Something is being done, but how effective these policies are remain to be seen.
Xiang supports Shandong Luneng – the second most successful team in the league’s thirteen year history. Since their last title victory in 2010, Shandong have struggled to keep up with Guangzhou Evergrande. Xiang has not been disappointed with Shandong this season (currently 6th with one game left to play) and recognises the quality of the champions. Xiang, however, is satisfied with his side just playing ‘the good game’ and remains optimistic their time will come again. Likewise, he believes West Ham will eventually reach the Champions League and potentially even win the Premier League. When it comes to Shandong and West Ham, Xiang points to the similarities of the two, including the famous youth academies of the two sides.
Domestically, the CSL is not yet as popular as the Premier League. In Xiang’s eyes, this is again partly cultural. ‘In the UK, football is inheritance’ whereas ‘in China, football is only a hobby’. Most people still prefer to watch the Premier League on TV at home as opposed to going to a stadium to watch the Super League. ‘Chinese football is so big, but there are not enough fans’ with Xiang revealing that only clubs in the big city (such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou) manage to fill their stadiums on a regular basis. It is easy to forget that professional football has only existed in China for 23 years. It is – as Xiang describes it – still a ‘baby in the world’.
On China PR…
‘Our poor national team’ Xiang begins ‘unless there are 36 teams or even 48 in the World Cup, it will still be hard [to qualify]. Like Russia and the United States, China have struggled to translate their large population into football success. Unlike the 2018 World Cup hosts, both China and the US have failed to qualify for next summer’s tournament. Unlike the US, this failure is nothing new having only successfully qualified for one World Cup in their history.
Xiang offers several explanations for the national team’s struggles. With only 54 professional teams across three tiers, the talent pool is not as deep as it is in England or Italy. He also points to too many young players changing their age. At youth level, China have enjoyed some success. However, the youth system from club-to-club is flawed. Xiang reveals that ‘if a child wants to play football, his family needs to pay more’. It is a problem similar to that in the US where the money invested at grassroots level has so far failed to pay off on the international stage. In China, many cannot afford to pay this, despite many families still only having one child. In stark contrast to England, football is only a hobby and many are expected to study hard and find a job rather than chase their dreams on the football pitch.
Aforementioned, Xiang believes players would benefit hugely from just training with European sides. There has even been talk of China’s Under-20s team being allowed to play in the fourth-tier of the Bundesliga. With the state continuing to take an active role in the CSL, there is clearly a genuine desire for China to become a ‘football superpower’ by 2050 – however ambitious that might seem in 2017. Still only a ‘baby in the world’, the CSL will continue to grow and develop, and it is hoped the fortunes of the Chinese national team will improve with it.
Make sure to check out Part One of Pierrex’s story, where he discusses his love for West Ham and offers his solution to the club’s troubles. You can also follow @pierrex523 on Twitter.
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