By Sportswriter Paul Giblin
MADRID, Oct. 26 (Xinhua) -- The failure of Jose Antonio Camacho with the Chinese national football team showed that a big name coach cannot guarantee success.
Furthermore, the failures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka to adapt to Chinese football showed that in order to improve the level of football in a country, it is far from enough to merely throw money at big name stars.
In the long run the best way to improve the level of football in China, or in any country for that matter is to start at grass roots and use advanced knowledge to help improve its own players. That is exactly what the Wanda Project is looking to do.
The project, which is now in its second year, involves three Spanish BBVA Primera Liga clubs with already close links to China: Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Valencia.
Atletico have a pact of collaboration with Shanghai Shenhua, while Villarreal have long shown interest in China, being one of the first Spanish clubs to have a website in Chinese, as well as accounts on Chinese social media pages and the club has made pre-season tours to China in order to raise its profile there.
Finally, Valencia is sponsored by Chinese solar panel manufacturer, Jinko and is also working hard to raise its presence in Asia.
Over a period of three years each of these three clubs will take in 30 young Chinese footballers, with 10 players joining each club every year. The youngsters, who are chosen at the national championships for their age group, come to Spain when they are 13 years old and will spend three years learning the skills in a program sponsored by Chinese property tycoon Wang Jianlin
Speaking to Xinhua, Emilio Gutierrez Boullosa, the General Director of Marketing, Image and Institutional Relations at Atletico Madrid explained the project had immediately appealed to the club.
As well as Shanghai, Atletico has agreements with clubs from all around the world and the holders of the Spanish Copa del Rey are constantly looking to strengthen their image in the outside world. However, as Gutierrez said, that was not the only reason.
"When the Wanda project came up, I thought it fit perfectly into our objectives. First as we can share values of sport in teaching a youngster who dreams of becoming a footballer and also making the Atletico Madrid brand known in a market as interesting as China and that's where it all began," he said.
In Madrid, the youngsters live in a residency just to the south of the capital and study in a local school. In the morning and afternoon they study their classes just like any other Spanish youngster and when they have finished their studies they go and train alongside the other teams in Atletico's productive youth system.
One of the great advantages of the Wanda Project is that the youngsters do not just learn about football. They also have the chance to learn a new language and also, thanks to the visits the club organizes every Sunday, to learn about Spain and its culture.
Given that not everyone will make it in the world of professional football, that means they already have an advantage in life, but at Atletico Madrid the coaches are impressed by what they see every day on the training pitch.
Angel Misis, the Coordinator at the Atletico Madrid Football School, highlights their discipline and work ethic.
"The young Chinese players are very disciplined lads," he said. "They pay a lot of attention at what you tell them and to try and learn what we are teaching, which are the characteristics of Spanish football."
Misis explained there is a difference between the Spanish and Chinese game. He believes the youngsters have inherited a desire to work hard, but that in their homeland the need to be disciplined and regimented on the pitch has superseded the Spanish preference for flair play and the ability and willingness to produce the unexpected on a football pitch.
Working with a team which includes two translators, who clearly love every minute they spend on the training pitch with the players, it is that message of flair and the willing to produce open, creative attacking football that the coaches try to get across.
"I think that what surprises me is that the Chinese players are at a European level and they could compete against a Spanish side with no problem," commented Enrique Fanjul, one of the coaches on the project.
The Chinese youngsters will have a chance to prove Enrique right when they start their league matches at the start of November and it is certain that it will be a big learning experience when they face sides made up of Spaniards of their own age.
Watching the boys train, Enrique pointed out one of the smallest in stature as he headed the ball in a training exercise, with his mop of dark hair there was something familiar about him. "He's the one they call the Chinese Messi," said the coach.
There is a long way to go before any of these players gets close to Messi and the majority will never do so but Angel Misis is convinced that the Wanda Project is going to bear fruit.
"There are at least 3 or 4 who could have a chance in Spanish football and who definitely will have a chance in China, because if they go back to China they will be very important players."
And those important players will then serve as role models for the next generation of Chinese footballers, who will also benefit from the lessons being learned now on the training grounds of Spain.