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WHEN STEPHEN CONSTANTINE TOOK CHARGE of the Indian national team for the second time, he found out that Indian football’s elite academy recruited players from just two youth tournaments in New Delhi. In From Delhi to the Den, Constantine mentions how he implemented youth scouting reforms after this discovery, but what struck me was the huge numbers of players who must have slipped through the net.

Thousands of kids must have been as good as those in those two tournaments but happened to play for a school who didn’t enter, or for one that got knocked out because the other kids were useless, or just happened to have the flu on the day of the big match.

India and China are two countries whose populations utterly dwarf every other country in the world. Statistically speaking, somewhere inside each of those countries must be a player with the ability of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. The two countries have huge potential, but it’s being wasted; for English fans, the biggest name either has produced in the last few decades is Sun Jihai.

Given the headlines earlier this year, one could have been forgiven for thinking China was about to take over world football. Clubs in the Chinese Super League (CSL) splashed the cash to bring in players like Oscar and Ramires among others, and although the government has put a dampener on spending for now, the top of Chinese football looks like it’s starting to reach that potential, on the surface at least.

But all the Paulinhos and Axel Witsels won’t help China make an impact on the international stage. In order to do that, the country will need to develop its own players to unlock the true potential of its huge population. The governing body has tried to address the problem, but despite all the CSL’s rules forcing clubs to play young players, and the creation of a Chinese under-20 team in the German fourth tier, for China to really excel at football, it will need to create top young players to fill those roles in the first place.

When Guangzhou Evergrande opened the world’s biggest football academy in 2012, it made news around the globe. It boasts 50 full-size pitches and 2,500 students – and it is just one of many. China apparently plans on opening 25,000 academies across the country by 2025.

Kim Teigland coaches at one of those academies. He had played at a semi-professional level in Wales and in his native Norway before taking up a role as a goalkeeping coach at Jing’an FC in Shanghai. Students at the academy get coached three or four times a week, with matches on the weekends, but don’t play football outside of the academies. No jumpers for goalposts down at the rec or in the back alleys of Shanghai; instead, it’s supplementary maths and English classes for these kids.

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Teigland told me that he had a few players who, if they pushed themselves and tried hard, could make a career out of being a footballer. At the age of 12 or 13, some of these kids certainly could make it, but then they hit the first major roadblock in any aspiring Chinese footballer’s career: middle school.

Teigland believes that despite having some talented players, almost all of them will drop out. His club, Jing’an, doesn’t have teams for the older age groups, simply because of a lack of players. While these 25,000 academies that the government is proposing will produce plenty of 13-year-olds with great technical skills, those skills will be wasted as young players miss out on football for some of the most important years of a player’s development.

The failures in youth football are one reason why Chinese football isn’t reaching its potential. Another is the lack of depth of its professional football league system. While the top 10 teams can sign superstars, drop a bit further down the pyramid and you come to an abrupt halt. China only has 56 professional clubs, with teams in the third tier averaging just over 2,500 fans a match. This in a country that boasts over a 100 cities with a million inhabitants or above. Over half of those cities lack a professional football club.

For kids in England, the dream of becoming a professional footballer can feel a bit far-fetched, but imagine the odds stacked against a kid in China making it as a pro. Without this depth to professional football, it is very easy for players with potential to fall off the radar and leave the game permanently. The Chinese Jamie Vardy would have hung up his boots long before making his national team debut.

On the other side of the Yellow Sea, the lack of depth in domestic football is even more acute, and is one of several factors that is preventing South Korea, one of Asia’s supposed powerhouses, from reaching the same level as the top European and South American footballing nations.

TNT FC are an amateur club with a difference; all of the Seoul-based club’s players are ex-professional footballers. The word ‘ex-pro’ conjures up images of 40 and 50-year-olds trying to work off their beer bellies by playing a legends five-a-side match, but the players at TNT are in their early 20s.

The club’s mission statement is to help these players find a path back to professional football. They’ve been pretty successful at it too/ Park Yi-young for example, now at German side St. Pauli, used to play for the club, and they’ve helped a whole list of other players get professional contracts in Korea and other Asian countries.

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But the fact that TNT have to fill this role in the first place highlights a key problem in Korean football. South Korea, a relatively wealthy country similar in size and population to England, and a place where millions will tune in to watch the national team or the top European sides, has just 22 professional teams – 20 if you discount the army and police teams. With so few sides to play for, if you get dropped by one club, that can be it.

TNT’s head coach, Mário Lemos, told me of a really good 22-year-old who played 18 games for second-tier Busan I-Park last season, before the new manager came in and released him. This player clearly has the potential to make a living in the game, but after being released from Busan, he had nowhere to go and was on the verge of quitting the game altogether. Every player at TNT has a similar story, with some of them joining after their old clubs went out of business.

Lemos told me of another player at the club who played regularly at top K-League sides like Pohang Steelers and Gangwon FC, but wasn’t able to make the cut for Korea’s army side, Sangju Sangmu. As a result, when his military service started, his footballing career essentially ended. In most countries you need a bit of luck to make it in the game; in Korea, with so few professional teams in the country, you need all the luck you can get.

The country’s footballing authorities are currently restructuring the lower leagues to encourage grassroots development, and because of this, TNT will join the Korean football pyramid next season, but more needs to be done to get money and interest into the lower levels of the game in Korea for the country to step up a level in the world game.

These problems are by no means limited to Korea, China, or India – they affect many countries around the world. Occasionally a country might over-perform with a golden generation and a bit of luck, but for long-term success, the grassroots structure has to be in place. Interest in football isn’t enough. Travel around Asia and you’ll see plenty of Liverpool or Barcelona shirts, and when these sides visit, they always sell out their stadiums.

Interest in local football is what’s important. That and having somewhere to play the game. According to Teigland, in Norway there are pitches everywhere, but in Shanghai they are mainly inside of schools. The situation is the same in Seoul, a megacity surrounded by mountains. With flat space at a premium, it’s hard to have a casual kick around in Korea’s capital.

Over half of the world’s population lives in Asia, and the growth of the region’s economies suggests that it will dominate the 21st century. For Asia to make headway in the world’s most popular sport, then behind all the glitz and the glamour of big money signings and prestige projects, a lot of work needs to be done to create an environment where footballers can develop and thrive. If that infrastructure is put in place, then Asia could be seriously challenging the world’s top footballing clubs and nations in the future 

By Steve Price