As the footballing world continued to reel from the news of ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce’s unceremonious departure from his role as England national team manager, conversation at Soccerex on the third and final day began with talk of another large, irrepressible force in the industry – although one considerably more cultured than the man departing St Georges’ Park.
The past year has been the year of the dragon in European soccer, with the likes of Inter Milan, West Bromwich Albion, Nice, and Auxerre all sealing major Chinese investment. Add on top of that the enormous fees being spent by the Chinese Super League (CSL) on some of Europe’s star players, and China was always likely to be a key issue for those visiting Soccerex.
Assembled alongside former Hull City chairman Paul Duffen for the Studio’s first panel of the day were a collection of Chinese market experts, including Chinese Football Association (CFA) marketing director Li Jiquan, with their aim being to look past the headline-grabbing financial figures of the Chinese football market at the real motives behind the influx of involvement from the Asian nation. While for many European onlookers the growth has been unprecedented, according to Li, it is part of a more widespread cultural plan.
“In 2014, the Government issued a master plan for football reform,” he said. “The government is paying much more attention on health and wellness of people, and on the environment. With these in mind, when they want to grow the economy then they have to do it through football.
“There is this plan to develop the football industry, and to stimulate sports consumption in China. China wants to experience sports all over, and this is the important part.”
President Xi Jinping has declared that he wants to turn the Chinese sports market into an upwards of US$760 billion industry by 2025 and, according to Jiquan, Xi’s aspirations are already in motion. The CFA recently signed a strategic partnership with the Belgium Football Association (KBVB), which includes knowledge-sharing, player visits and coaching education, and Europe seems to be a key target for China.
Perhaps the most important plays the nation has made so far have been through Wanda, the conglomerate owned by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin. Having taken a minor stake in Spanish side Atletico Madrid, the group became a major sponsor of Fifa, and is now looking to leverage its ever-growing footprint in Europe to develop China’s own national team. The China Cup, which it hopes it can introduce to the international football calendar in 2017, will see the Chinese national team take on three other invitational teams, with the aim to both improve and promote the sport in China.
“There is clear appetite to create a better China through sport and soccer,” said Jiquan, to agreement from the rest of the panel.
“A key aim for us to reach a Fifa World Cup again, as a nation it would be incredible, and it would grow all elements of the sport in China.”
Learning from Leicester
As talk of China’s national team ramped up in the Studio, it was elsewhere in Manchester Central that another more recent story of an underdog’s success backed by immense hard work was capturing the imagination.
In the Academy, Keith Paxton, head of the academy’s sport science department at Premier League champions Leicester City, illustrated the unique data farming that the club go through, at all age levels, to achieve the strongest possible outcomes for their talent.
Paxton, who works closely with the first team to bring through talent from his academy, showed how the team’s trainees’ physiology is closely monitored, and how big data has impacting the way they treat and prevent injuries, tailor training schemes, and push their youth teams.
Continuing a big data themed day in the Academy, Inter Milan’s head of sport performance analysis Marco Fumagalli introduced the key role that his department plays in the running of one of Italy’s most successful teams. Through the unique study of how players perform during games, Fumagalli explained how they are able to develop tailored tactical set-ups for them. On top of this, he also talked about how important that very same data is when making key business decisions. The data developed on the pitch is being used to market the players, during contract negotiations and throughout scouting expeditions.
The Academy continued throughout the day on the topic of big data, with Atletico Madrid’s global business development director Javier Martinez talking stadium expansion plans and SciSports founder and chef de mission Giles Brouwer discussing his unique big data-driven scouting solutions. Discussions in the second room concluded with representatives of Sevilla and PSV Eindhoven discussing with SportsPro’s Eoin Connolly the benefits of data insight on engaging new ages of football fans.
Across the ever-busy exhibition area in the Love Football Zone, Everton took centre stage, as they showcased the extensive work the club is doing within the community. In a special two=part session, members of the club’s community programme spoke alongside Edge Hill University’s professor of sport and physical activity Andy Smith about the initiatives they are running to introduce football to the community as an outlet for those struggling with mental health. The club are helping bring purpose and meaning to the lives of people who struggle to see it for themselves, in a time when mental health and sport are more increasingly coming in closer contact with each other.
The McLaren report
As Allardyce’s departure dominated headlines across the country, it seemed almost fitting that another former England manager closed the Convention. Steve McClaren, a man whose own troubled legacy as national team chief may now pale into obscurity thanks to Big Sam’s indiscretions, took to the Studio stage alongside Rio Olympic medal winners Joe Clarke and Lutalo Muhammed to discuss what perhaps everyone at the event was really wanting to find out: how to succeed.
Muhammed, who came within just a second of winning gold in Rio but came away with silver instead, is perhaps better placed than anyone to discuss the highs of success and lows of disappointment. For him, taking silver was more important than anything.
“I’ve had time to reflect now, and it was immensely disappointing of course, but you remember everything you did to get there and you remember how proud you are to be taking home that silver medal for your country,” he said. “When you reflect, you realise what you have achieved.”
Joe Clarke, who is the first ever British gold medallist in the K-1 canoe slalom, echoed Muhammed’s words, and said that success is something that is difficult to describe until you reflect.
“I knew about the history that I could break, but when you’re competing you don’t think about it at all,” he revealed. “When you’ve won it all comes over you what you’ve achieved, and you realise what you’ve done much later, but you know you can only get to that stage because of all the hard work you put in earlier. But in that moment, you have to just do your job that you always do, that you’ve always practiced.”
With both medallists treating the audience to a true flavour of what could be considered to be the pinnacle of sporting success, the stage was set for McClaren to give real insight into the life of success and failure within sport. Inevitably, the question of Allardyce’s departure was broached.
“I think it’s been a hugely disappointing couple of days for English football, and I’m very sad for what’s happened to Sam,” said McLaren. “It could happen to any of us in football. I hope that the FA can organise investigations, because we do not want a corrupt game.”
But McClaren himself had a tumultuous time as England manager, which ended after the team missed out on qualification for UEFA Euro 2008, and for him, the margins between success and failure are incredibly small.
“You look at these Olympians here, and they talk about the success they have achieved, and waking up first thing in the morning to train,” he said. “But what you must not forget is all of the work that everyone else puts in who doesn’t succeed. Everyone, even those who come last, wake up first thing in the morning to train.
“Success is a fascinating thing, and it makes everything that you put in ultimately worthwhile. Failure can be so lonely, but this is what sport is all about. You are constantly on the brink, and everything can be taken away. At the same time, you can win and take it all. Players care like hell, and it is never nice to pick up the papers and be criticised, and all anyone ever works for is to succeed.”
Despite his now somewhat jaded managerial record, McClaren’s words rang true throughout the conference. After all, be it at playing, governance, or commercial level, everyone working within football is looking to succeed.
As the Soccerex 2016 Global Convention kicked off on Monday, the minds of English fans were still optimistic about the future under Allardyce. As the event closed on Wednesday, the English national team was left managerless and the FA was faced with another impending corruption scandal. Perhaps it is fitting, therefore, that Lutalo Muhammed shared the stage for the final panel of the week, for surely nobody in world sport embodies the rapidly changing fortunes of the sports industry like the taekwondo silver medallist. As the doors closed on another edition of Soccerex’s Global Convention, one can only wonder what the state of the sport will be when the next event rolls around.