At an upscale private sports club in Algete on the outskirts of Madrid, 25 Chinese children dressed in yellow soccer uniforms huddle together before a game and yell “commitment” in their mother tongue.
The youngsters aged 12 to 14 are the first of 75 handpicked by Guangzhou, China-based Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd. to develop their skills over three years in the country that won the 2010 World Cup. Beijing-based Dalian Wanda Group Co. is also trying to improve Chinese soccer by paying for 90 children to live in Spain and train at three clubs including Atletico Madrid.
Soccer governing body FIFA is looking at the arrangements as part of a wider probe into child players, Atletico said. While the initiatives might not contravene FIFA rules, they aren’t in line with the spirit of the regulations, according to John Shea, a lawyer at Blake Morgan in Reading, England, who has advised parents on the transfer of minors.
“FIFA’s overriding objective is to curtail mass emigration of youngsters, taking them away from their parents and their roots,” Shea said.
Under FIFA rules, clubs can only field minors from another continent if their parents are living in the same country for reasons not linked to soccer. Last year, FIFA handed Barcelona a one-year player trading ban for bringing children from countries including South Korea and Cameroon to its academy, which trained Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
An Atletico official says the 30 minors being trained by its youth academy coaches haven’t signed for the club, and will eventually return to China. Atletico says it has sent information about the arrangement to FIFA and is awaiting its response. Another 60 children trained with Valencia and Villarreal the last three years. A Valencia official declined to comment and Villarreal didn’t return a call and e-mail.
FIFA said in an e-mail it was unable to discuss the case of the Chinese minors “in order that we do not jeopardize any existing or future investigations.”
Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, met FIFA President Sepp Blatter in Zurich in May, when Blatter “promised strong support” to develop soccer in China, according to a Wanda statement that didn’t mention the children in Spain. Shi Xueqing, a manager for Wanda’s football training program, declined to comment for this story.
Evergrande said in an e-mail its program is “totally in accordance” with FIFA rules, adding the children have adapted to Spain and have two Chinese teachers and a translator who help look after them.
The real-estate developers are supporting an initiative by China to improve its standing in soccer. The men’s team is ranked world No. 79 by FIFA, below the likes of Togo, Haiti and Uganda. In March, the Chinese government said it was setting up a Communist Party committee to develop the sport and would quadruple the number of soccer schools in the country to 20,000 by 2020.
Individual sports such as badminton and pingpong are more common in China than soccer. When Bayern Munich sent six scouts to the the world’s most populous country for five weeks a couple of years ago to find talent for Germany’s biggest soccer club they came back empty-handed, team chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in a 2014 interview.
The Chinese developers already have links with soccer. Evergrande’s Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League in 2013 and is training more than 2,000 children at a purpose-built campus near Guangzhou. Dalian Wanda acquired a 20 percent stake in Atletico Madrid last year.
Real Madrid, which is advising Evergrande on its soccer school in China, said in a statement it wrote to the developer last year rejecting an offer to train the pupils in Spain because of the risk of breaking FIFA rules.
For the match in the Madrid suburb last month, the Evergrande starting 11 dominated the opposition -- a side from the Madrid district of Boadilla del Monte -- with skillful passing moves. The other 14 Chinese youths sit on the touchline, chatting and laughing.
After winning 6-0, the Chinese group holds hands in the center of the field, bow and shout “Thank You!” in Spanish. They shake hands with the Spanish youngsters and pose for photographs with them.
Francisco Cubillo, the Boadilla coach, said he’s impressed by the play and sportsmanship of the Chinese.
“I didn’t see a Xavi or Iniesta,” Cubillo said, referring to Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning midfielders known for their passing expertise. “But they played at a very high level -- they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Luis Alsina, president of Madrid-based Soxna S.L., which has a 13.3 million-euro ($14.9 million) contract through 2019 to manage the children’s coaching and education, said they are studying the Chinese school curriculum as well as English and Spanish at a private school. Unaccustomed to Spanish food, they often eat out at a noodle restaurant.
When Miguel Angel Gonzalez, a coach employed by Soxna, first tossed a leather ball to a group of children in Guangzhou in 2012, one of them sat on it and began to play a computer game on his mobile phone, he said. Now they are well versed in the game. Sometimes to try and win a penalty kick, they dive to the ground to get the referee’s attention, Gonzalez said.
“We try and teach them not to but they see it all the time on television,” Gonzalez said.