Football: Chinese soccer faces ping pong challenge, says Eriksson

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Chinese football could struggle to attract youngsters away from table tennis and badminton and needs a home-grown star playing in Europe before it really takes off, former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson told AFP.

President Xi Jinping has high ambitions for football's ultimate sleeping giant, including a rumoured bid to hold the World Cup - a tournament which 82nd-ranked China has only reached once before.

Eriksson, now coach of Shanghai SIPG, backed China's new plans to raise standards, including training players from an early age and introducing the sport to more schools.

But speaking to AFP in Shanghai, the well-travelled Swede warned it will take "some years" before any evidence of improvement is apparent.

"The reason for that is that the grassroots football is almost non-existent," Eriksson said.

"That is a pity because young people - boys, girls - they play badminton, they play ping pong, they play basketball. Football... almost nothing."

China dominates Olympic table tennis and badminton, and basketball has a long tradition in the country highlighted by the National Basketball Association exploits of Yao Ming.

But Eriksson said Chinese youngsters did not have the access to spaces to play football that children in Europe enjoy, putting them at a disadvantage.

"If you go to the parks it is always written in Chinese 'Don't walk on the grass'," he said, before drawing a comparison to London's green spaces.

"Hyde Park, Regent's Park. Saturdays, Sundays. What are people doing there? Playing football.

"That is grassroots football and I think that most of the schools in places like Shanghai they don't have any space to play football.

"Badminton, ping pong and basketball you need very little space."

China's breathtaking economic rise has seen its cities and towns develop at a rapid pace, with space for sports fields way down the list of priorities.

But even if Chinese youngsters were given opportunities to succeed, they need an aspirational "big star" to make it in England, Spain or Germany, Eriksson said.

"China needs a Chinese player playing in Premier League, or La Liga or Bundesliga or somewhere, and who can do it with success," he said.

"That is the only way (for football) to be big in this country."

Only five Chinese nationals have played English Premier League football, with Li Tie (Everton) and Sun Jihai (Manchester City) being the most successful.

Eriksson joined Shanghai in November after an 18-month stint at fellow Chinese Super League (CSL) outfit Guangzhou R&F, where he was also "ambassador for schools football".

He is among the big names to have arrived in China, as the CSL emerges from years of corruption and sleaze that threatened to derail the sport in the country.

Italian World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro joined current champions Guangzhou Evergrande as manager in November, replacing his highly successful countryman Marcello Lippi.

Cannavaro and Eriksson have been at the centre of a cash splurge in the CSL, whose clubs spent 122.2 million euros (S$176.4 million) during the January transfer window, according to statistics from transfermarkt.

The figure is almost double last year's figure and second only to the EPL (186.8 million euros), the German website said.

The 47 foreign imports, including Australia's Tim Cahill and a raft of Brazilian talent, doubled the CSL's foreign ranks ahead of the season opening last month.

"The standard of Chinese football is getting better and better," Eriksson said, praising a league which is now the most watched in Asia.

"More and more money goes into football clubs. Rich people buying it. Government-owned companies buying football clubs and the money is more and more to buy foreign players and also, big competition to take the best Chinese players."

But he was elusive on his own reported windfall from the Chinese game, when asked if his annual salary was near the US$6 million (S$8.1 million) reported in local media.

"Not at all," he laughed. "I have a good salary, but not at all."