“My biggest hope for Chinese football is to see the national team among the strongest in the world, so that this sport can help people improve their physique while filling their hearts with a steadfast spirit.” This is how Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, described the footballing aspirations of his nation while interviewed by Reuters in October 2015.
Earlier that year, China’s “football dream” had been clearly codified in an official document which goes by the name of Overall Plan for Chinese Football Reform and Development, issued by the General Office of the State Council. The document touches upon many aspects of the game, with grassroots development standing out for the scope with which it’s dealt.
Particularly, the fifth section places great emphasis on youth development, affirming that “Football will be included in the physical education syllabus of all primary and secondary schools, […] and the number [of primary and secondary schools specialised in football] will reach 50,000 units by 2025.”
While the plan shyly admits that the support of foreign expertise will probably be required in some measure, neither Xi Jinping nor the General Office of the State Council would ever thought that, five years down the line, an Italian coming from his country’s lesser leagues would prove more important than his deified fellow countrymen Fabio Cannavaro and Marcello Lippi.
As of today, Daniele D’Eustacchio and the company he founded, evocatively named Beijing Calcio Sports & Culture Ltd., are proving instrumental in the breeding of a new generation of Chinese players and coaches. But the whole project is far from being just another foreign-run football academy in China, as explained by Daniele himself.
“What makes us most proud is the stark difference between us and private academies. China is now promoting football in public schools, meaning kids don’t have to pay to play this sport. Working with schools, the digits we deal with are enormous. An academy can train up to 200 kids each year, while I see at least 200 kids every day, because it’s like if the government paid on their behalf.
“Parents usually think it’s extremely unlikely that their children ever go pro, they’re still quite sceptical about football and they want kids to study, not to kick a ball around. They don’t see this sport as a job opportunity. But now, under the new regulations, football gives students points that can grant them easier access to good universities or to certain working positions. You get no such points for playing at private academies because that’s something personal you do after you’ve done your homework. Whatever we do, we do it during normal school hours, working with political institutions.”
This last sentence is better understood when looking at the routine that enables Beijing Calcio to get in touch with schools. “Without political support, we would pretty much be a private company working in spurts, without much to lean on,” commented Daniele. “The Sports Minister proposes us to schools that have to engage in football, many people from different cities come to talk with us and those interested finally take advantage of this service. We work with different schools at once, according to their own projects and needs. Some want a coach to stay with their team all year long, while others prefer to carry out workshops during which we do our best to ensure every class makes similar improvements.”
All of this is pretty unique when it comes to foreign companies plying their trade in China. The government’s general lack of trust towards most of them makes it seemingly impossible to penetrate the public education system, but Beijing Calcio succeeded where even Nanjing-based Suning Holdings Group, owner of Internazionale, had failed.
However, success (and trust), didn’t come overnight; Daniele had to go through a winding path in order to reach his privileged position inside the Chinese football development plan. It’s a path that brought him from Shanghai’s glittering boulevards, where he divided his time between various jobs and Sunday league football, to the dusty streets of Wuhai, in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, where he was entrusted with the development of youth football, courtesy of the fame acquired through his skills on the pitch, a commercial with Michael Owen and a dashing personality.
“When I first got introduced to the project, it didn’t look as ambitious as it turned out to be,” recalled Daniele. “As they put it, they needed someone to take care of the team in the city’s main school, teaching a bit of tactics and individual technique in the process. The day I got there, I found myself in front of a 2,000-strong crowd asking for a demonstration. I wasn’t even dressed properly.
“I borrowed a pair of shorts from a Chinese guy and an Inter shirt from another one, then set out to do some keepie-uppies and some shots. After that, I made a few kids perform some drills, locals were pretty impressed with my impact on them and offered me to oversee the football development of both boys and girls in every school of the city.”
Life in cold Wuhai was not only devoid of the slightest trace of pizza, fast foods and any foreign presence whatsoever, but it gave Daniele the opportunity to get the hang of Chinese kids’ learning habits. “Explaining a scheme in Europe is easier,” noted Daniele. “There, I first had to be the one who crosses, the one who passes, the one who sprints, the one who receives the ball and the one who shoots. Only then, after 20 minutes, they were ready for the drill. These small things made the job a bit stressful but, in the end, we won everything and it was a great experience for me and for them.”
Daniele’s journey went on with football camps organised in other northern cities like Hohhot and Ordos, before heading south and starting operating between the coastal province of Shandong and Beijing, where he ultimately founded his company in March 2019. By then, his reputation throughout the highest spheres of Chinese sports environment was already excellent, but it kept getting better thanks to his work not only with young players but also with coaches.
“The kids we work with are often accompanied by their coach, and our classes are meant to enable them to go on and teach similar things without our support. This is what China’s future is all about: one day, we’ll have to go, so we hope to leave a mark that allows them to stand on their own two feet. Our programmes often include tactical or technical evening sessions alone with coaches, where we aim at providing them with material they’re going to use afterwards to teach what we showed them, but in their own fashion.”
However, local coaches’ fondness for the re-utilisation of foreign models do have some downsides. “After France won the World Cup in 2018, a lot of schools started to field their under-11 team with a 4-2-3-1 formation, without thinking this might not be the best option if you lack people like Kylian Mbappé and Olivier Giroud. They absorb things with great ease but they don’t always interpret them correctly,” mused Daniele. “Having to do with kids is easier because they learn faster and better. On the other hand, when dealing with coaches we have to understand what’s the right compromise for each one of them.”
Daniele has a clear idea about what China still lacks to develop its first golden generation, proving the awareness with which he carries out his job. “First of all, I’d like to debunk the myth according to which the Chinese are short and lightweight. That’s not true. I had a lot of 15 or 16-year-old boys way taller than me. They all look like athletes but, despite being strong, they don’t always know how to effectively use their body in football.
“The mental aspect, on the other hand, is where I can see them having the most difficulties. It’s not about tactics, it’s about creativity. They do have it when it comes to individual technique, and there are lots of very good young players under this point of view but sometimes, when on the pitch, they don’t seem to know where to go and struggle to think in advance.”
In recent years, China has witnessed the rise of high-profile footballers of Uyghur ethnicity, like Shanghai SIPG’s Mirahmetjan Muzepper, Jiangsu Suning’s Abduhamit Abdugheni and Qingdao Huanghai’s Bari Mohamedali. Other minorities are embracing the beautiful game as well, as proved by Hulunbuir Xini River FC, the Chinese fourth-tier club where all players are of Mongol or Evenk ethnicity.
These success stories have been sparking discussion about the innate qualities of Central Asian peoples, which allegedly allow them to stand out in sports.
Inner Mongolia, as the name suggests, it’s the cradle of Mongol Chinese and, having worked there, Daniele is referenced enough to address the topic. “People in the region have a pretty conservative way of thinking and feel proud to descend from Gengis Khan. They’re physically exuberant and this might have something to do with traditional activities like horse riding and bow-hunting. They’re also quarrelsome and very self-confident.”
Such characteristics do seem to have a resonance in the game, but the outcome is not always positive. “In Wuhai, there was this one time when a team I was coaching in the No. 1 Middle School faced one from the No. 3 Middle School in a friendly game,” reminisced Daniele. “One of their players played with us because he was intended to switch to the No. 1 the next year.
“I don’t know what happened exactly; as I understand it, the kid was probably trying to give some hint to his team, although being with the opponents for that game. A brawl ensued, with the other coach fiercely slapping the 14-year-old’s face. He was a gigantic Mongol Chinese and he went on for a while with such violence that I had to intervene to put an end to it. When the situation settled down, some people as well as the coach himself came to me and told me I didn’t have to worry because that’s what they’re used to. I was at a loss for words.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Beijing Calcio is the collaboration with former players like Amedeo Mangone and Carlo Zotti, respectively left-back and goalkeeper at Roma in the early 2000s, who flew to China in 2019. “I’m extremely grateful to Mangone and Zotti for coming here and being two real professionals,” explained Daniele. “Here, it’s important to stay humble; they were great and settled in very quickly, which is definitely uncommon.
“It’s not easy for a foreigner to come here and run a football camp in a city like, say, Weifang. Everything is so fast, you eat at the canteen and you have to work more hours than what initially planned because we can’t say no to the government. I was really happy with their behaviour. Beyond that, they’re great at their job too.
“Mangone has the spirit of an instructor, not that of a coach. We don’t need coaches, we don’t need to win games, we’re here to create development and he’s perfect for this: he never loses his cool, even when he doesn’t eat anything and he’s under pressure. As for Zotti, he’s been my first goalkeeping coach.
“One of the biggest problems with this country is the absence of goalkeeping academies, and Zotti’s contribution was of utmost importance, even if we had to rush him to the hospital on his first day here. Different food, low blood sugar, jet lag: he worked seven hours straight and the next day was hooked to an IV drip. That’s what I mean when I say it’s not easy for foreigners to settle in. Moreover, when working with institutions you’re both protected and closely watched at the same time. They’ve been great despite all this.”
As Chinese football faces forward, new challenges await Beijing Calcio and its founder. One of them is actually an age-old one that made its way into Daniele’s mind back in his Wuhai days. It revolves around the establishment of a club that may help closing the gap that still exists between youth football and the professional game.
As Daniele put it: “Things change quickly in China. My project in Inner Mongolia was about to take off, but then many members of the local Sports and Education Bureaus got arrested over a bribing scandal. There’s a new Head of Sports Development in the region now so we would have to start all over again. I wanted to found a club with the aim of making talented kids blossom and reach the various ramifications of the sporting system, but it’s difficult now because we lack political support in that sense.”
In years to come, China and other Asian nations are bound to gain a greater influence in the footballing world, and Daniele’s company may well have a voice in the matter: “Through the cooperation with an academy run by an Italian in Kuala Lumpur, we want to get access to international schools and to the youth system of the Malaysian FA, establishing an elite football academy to propose our programmes. From there, we’ll try and expand to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and maybe Singapore.”
Regardless of future prospects, China still is Daniele’s own turf, and he looks confident as to what his work means for the country: “With regards to the football infrastructure, they’ll soon catch up with the world’s greatest exponents. We keep developing the youth sector, but while at school level they are and will stay on the right path, it’s still too hard to make the leap to the federal level and become a pro, and this may hamper the nation’s progress. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is bringing organisation to the system.”
Such a combination of wealth, human capital and experts striving to build from below like Daniele D’Eustacchio is undoubtedly among the best recipes for national success. Whether China will take full advantage of it and fulfil its football dream remains to be seen.
By Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14