BARCELONA (AFP) - China must start developing its own players instead of splashing out on foreign talent if it wants to become a football superpower, according to the head of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's sports arm.
"The biggest problem is that we have not established a youth training system, so Chinese athletes have not been able to improve at the same level as international athletes," Alisports CEO Zhang Dazhong told AFP. "We can only buy athletes from abroad to sustain our prosperity, but we think that this sort of prosperity cannot be continued. We must learn from Europe, and train our own young players. This is the basis of our development."
Alibaba owns almost 40 per cent of China's most successful club, Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of the Chinese Super League for the previous seven seasons and Asian Champions League winners in 2013 and 2015.
"I believe that if we establish football in school sporting programmes and broadly promote the sport, this is the real way to promote football in China," Zhang added.
Alibaba is China's dominant player in online commerce. The company, often compared to US giants Amazon and eBay, has expanded outside its core e-commerce business into sectors ranging from sports to entertainment.
China, encouraged by President Xi Jinping, an avid football fan, has splashed out to develop the sport in the country.
Super League clubs have invested vast amounts in foreign stars such as Shanghai SIPG's €60 million (S$96 million) Brazilian Oscar and the disappointing Carlos Tevez at Shanghai Shenhua, both reportedly on some of the highest wages in world football.
China is also forging partnerships with clubs and football associations across the globe to help drag up the level of Chinese youth players.
Dutch football giants Ajax Amsterdam on Monday announced a five-year partnership with Super League side Guangzhou R&F that will attempt to build the best youth academy in China.
Chinese authorities have in recent months tried to put the brakes on the import of talent from abroad by hiking taxes slapped on the purchase of foreign players.
Recent investment has also failed to help the Chinese national team, who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and are ranked 60th in the world by Fifa.