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Soccer's fantasy island

By Tang Zhe (China Daily)

09:06, March 04, 2013

Xu Genbao, president of Shanghai East Asia and head of the program's coaching staff, has set his sights on building China's version of great European club Manchester United. (China Daily/ Cui Meng)

After a dozen years of toil, Xu Genbao's dream of a nursery for soccer players is bearing fruit as his young team, Shanghai East Asia, is set to make its debut in the CSL, Tang Zhe reports from Shanghai.

An old turtle carries dozens of little turtles on his back, his eyes looking in the direction of Shanghai.

"One day they will grow up, crawl by themselves and go out to create their own future," Xu Genbao, comparing himself to the old turtle, said of the sculpture inside his soccer base on Chongming Island, Shanghai, which is located on the Yangtze River and is more than 80 km away from downtown Shanghai.

Xu spent more than 20 years on the sidelines of Chinese soccer field and managed Dalian Wanda and Shanghai Shenhua to first-flight championships.

When he decided to start his own soccer base in 2000, he refused all offers outside of Shanghai. He led second-tier team Shanghai Zhongyuan to the league title and promotion in 2001 and joined Shanghai Shenhua again in 2002.

When his second stint at Shenhua came to a frustrating end after only 10 rounds, Xu, at the age of 58, stepped away from the intense spotlight of Chinese soccer and devoted himself to his academy on the isolated island, vowing to build China's "Manchester United" and develop Chinese soccer stars within a decade.

"I set myself 10 years to build our own Manchester United and bring up local stars. Chinese soccer can't improve without stars like Liu Xiang (the 110m hurdler) and Yao Ming (the basketballer)," the former China leftback said.

Xu expected to invest 8 million yuan ($1.3 million) to start the Genbao Football Base in 2000. However, the budget blew out to 32 million yuan when the final plan was drawn up. It included 3 1/2 pitches and an in-door stadium with artificial grass imported from Germany.

Xu borrowed more than 20 million yuan from a bank. Despite having to pay more than 1 million in interest each year, the 69-year-old has never regretted risking his life's savings.

"I was shocked by my boldness after I made the decision, but once I started, I was going all out," he said. "Our philosophy is to train the players from childhood.

"The soccer base provides the foundation, and producing talented kids is at the core of our pursuit."

To select the first batch of children, Xu organized an invitational competition among primary schools in Shanghai.

"The professional league was in a period of prosperity in 2000, and the soccer environment was better at that time. There were many parents willing to let their children play soccer," said Xu, who selected the first group of 97 children, aged between 10 and 11, from thousands of participants in the competition.

However, that proved to be just the start of a bumpy decade.

"Our biggest problem was we didn't get any financial support from companies, so we had to raise money ourselves," Xu said. "We could never plan for the next year.

"We had to subsidize one child for 20,000 yuan a year at the start," he said. "But I don't care how much money you pay, it's all about the talent."

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