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China takes bold steps towards a dream of World Cup glory

By ITV News China correspondent Lucy Watson

Football has the power to unite people around the world and deliver national pride, but poor performances can be humiliating, and often the game is used as an easy reference point for people to understand and measure failure.

But, when a country takes its failure and puts plans in place to achieve future greatness it motivates, especially when that country is China, a nation that wills achievement, even with a dismal record in the sport.

The football school claims to be the largest of its kind in the world. Credit: ITV News

Their team is absent from Brazil 2014, and has only qualified for a World Cup once, in 2002. In their three matches then, they failed to score a single goal and the squad has never won a game at the Olympics.

China prides itself on its global stature but football, for the national team, has become a national joke.

Now, bold steps are being made to exact change, with the introduction of Evergrande International Football School.

It was set up by one of China’s richest men, property tycoon Xu Jiayin, who also has ownership stakes in the nation’s most successful football club, Guangzhou Evergrand.

There are 50 pitches at the facility, with plans for 30 more. Credit: ITV News

The football school claims to be the largest of its kind in the world and they're projecting dreams of World Cup glory.

The buildings emerge from rural, southern China like a magical kingdom for sport, and wouldn't look out of place alongside Hogwarts.

Its European-influenced architecture, complete with turrets and spires, and giant replica World Cup, stand on a 167-acre site.

There are 50 pitches, with plans for 30 more, and there is a giant stadium.

The whole site was built in just 11 months.

Mountains were carved out and fully grown, mature trees were sourced and planted to create a football-teaching idyll.

China hopes the unique school will bring about World Cup success. Credit: ITV News

They teach 2,300 students, of whom 100 are girls, and they want to increase it to 10,000.

Most pupils pay £3,500 a year in school fees, but for a quarter of them, who can't afford the costs but have footballing 'potential' the school helps fund their tuition.

The children have ordinary lessons here too, combined with four 90-minute football training sessions a week.

It culminates on a Saturday, when every child is on every pitch and plays a competitive match against another team from their year group, and parents come and watch.

It’s a real spectacle.

But this school's football fields are not the only thing to marvel at.

Some 22 Spanish football coaches have also been recruited. Credit: ITV News

There are six canteens, a cinema, a theatre, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a gym, hydrotherapy pools, and treatment centres offering acupuncture, massage and physiotherapy.

It's size and scope are staggering.

Some 22 Spanish football coaches have also been recruited, to change mentalities and channel a different approach to the game, based not on individual success, but collective triumph.

The whole site was built in just 11 months. Credit: ITV News

Pablo Amo, a former professional in Spain, told me that on his first day: “The kids were like the military, so disciplined.

"They are very individual about everything. If you say, do this, do that, they’re going to do it and repeat it over and over again, but as soon as they have to play with others… me, the opponent, the ball, a mate

"It’s too much for them. Things that are easy for us, they find difficult. They find showing emotion hard, being creative difficult, and they don’t feel free to make mistakes."

The aim is to win a World Cup. Credit: ITV News

Pablo retired from his professional career during the 2011/2012 season, and came to Evergrand in 2013.

He told me that when a player ‘hangs up his boots’ it's hard to accept that you can no longer do what you really love, but doing this job and linking his passion with work, and using the game as a way to educate children, has made him happy again.

He believes World Cup glory could be possible for China but it’s a 'long process.' The future for Chinese football, he says, is with the eight and nine-year-olds he teaches.

One of those rising stars is Wang Shijie. He’s nine years old, and when you see him on the pitch, you can recognise his natural talent. He is small yet quick, intuitive and fiercely competitive. Those instincts, Pablo says, you cannot teach.

China puts a lot of importance into children's academic achievements. Credit: ITV News

Wang is from Fujian Province, and lives hundreds of miles from his parents and only sees them once a year.

He is quiet and misses his family, and when I asked him about his talent and his love of football he humbly said: “I was just born with it.”

But he did not grow up watching football on television. Many Chinese children don’t.

Yan Qiang, a football commentator in Beijing told me: “The lack of participation in sport for kids, not just in football has been a serious problem in China for more than 10 years.

"China is a nation that has always put a lot of importance into kid’s academic achievements. Sport is not a way of life here. Not for the 2-3000 years. It is a very Western thing.”

But, we’ve seen China excel at the Olympic Games. It dominates medal tables with success in diving, gymnastics, weight-lifting and table tennis, to name but a few, but there is a trend.

They are all solitary pursuits, to some extent.

Yan Qiang went on to say:“Football in China is just a mirror which reflects the hidden rules, the hidden reality of this Chinese society. I don’t think the Communist Party encourage team sports. Team sports represent a very democratic way of thinking and acting.”

But there is slow recognition in the importance of sport, and Yan can see that.

The government has started to realise the importance of sport so they've started to encourage more people to participate in it, but they haven’t put much into the participation of kids.

The most difficult part of it, is the mentality of people. The parents, the school headmasters, even the higher echelons of the government, must realise that sport could be a good way, maybe the most healthy way, to enhance the quality of life for our future generations.

– Yan Qiang

In 2011, the then Vice-President of China, now President, Xi Jinping set three goals: to qualify for a World Cup, to host a World Cup and to win a World Cup. Wisely, he did not set a timeframe, though. This Academy predicts it will take between 8 and 10 years for their students to fully blossom, and the aim is to turn China into a footballing powerhouse.

Of course there are no guarantees, but if there’s one thing this nation does do well it’s thinking big and achieving.

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