Darko Matic talks Chinese football development

The Croatian defensive midfielder sat down with Goal to talk about Chinese football development, with his eight years in China placing him as an expert observer
By Peter Davis

Winners of the Chinese Super League in 2009, Matic’s Beijing Guoan are testing AFC Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande this season and just one point separates them ahead of Monday’s big clash between the two at the Worker’s Stadium.

Joining Tianjin Teda in 2007, Matic moved to Beijing Guoan and has racked up over 200 CSL games. Now, the 33 year old is a famous face in Beijing and runs the rule over some of China’s biggest footballing problems.

You’ve have been here for many years now, how do you think Chinese football has progressed over that time?

It’s improved in a lot of ways, especially tactically because many famous coaches are coming into Chinese football not to mention bigger name players. There is a young generation of Chinese players with a new attitude, they are open, have tactical questions and they want to learn English.

China has a lack of hot prospects, Wu Lei at 22 and Zhang Xizhe at 23 being possible exceptions but in other nations hot prospects are spotted earlier, what are your thoughts on that problem?

At Guoan there is a gap between the early twenties and the over thirties, we have 4 or 5 players at 33 and 34 who still have the quality to play at Guoan but there is a gap between them and younger players like Zhang Xizhe and Piao Cheng. The question is why is there this gap, not many players in the mid to late twenties. One of the reasons may be that the youth academies were not so good a few years ago; another reason could have been the negativity around Chinese football.

I was a part of an academy here run by Tom Byer from Japan, there were about 100 12 year old kids and of those 100, 80 couldn’t even run and played without coordination. In my own situation when I was playing football on the street, I would spend the whole day after school on the street and you don’t see that in China. Kids are playing on i-pads and computer games but not football.

Do you think attitudes are changing to football here?

People in China really like football; you can see that every week at our stadium. Maybe they lost interest because Chinese people like to be successful and the national team wasn’t very successful.

The big investments of Guangzhou, at Shenhua with Drogba and Anelka, Guoan with Kanoute, this is the right way to go but it’s not the way to build Chinese football’s foundation. I think what we will see is clubs signing players who are the right age to contribute more to football here.

What do you make of the replacement of the Australian players with Korean players this winter?

In recent years there have been a lot of Australian’s in China and some of them are really good footballers. I see it like this, Korean and Japanese players saw that their leagues were better than China but recently there is a lot more money in the game in China so the best Korean players see that they can earn more here. It’s another sign that the league is improving.

Serbian players and managers have had their time here too, why do you think specific nationalities can find a home here?

We had 7 Serbian coaches last year out of 16 teams, first of all its cost effectiveness. Secondly, the former Yugoslavia had pretty good political ties due to Communism so the connections were there, a lot of other nationalities like Germans were skeptical to work here but nations like Serbia knew the situation in China so it was easier to come here.

You have a Sina Weibo following of over a million, how do you value that?

Football is a game and in some games you have to understand how to play it, you have to promote yourself and of course it makes you proud to have so many followers.

Chinese people love football and they are very passionate, I am one of the longest serving foreigners and have played a lot of games here, I also speak a bit of Chinese and that’s maybe why they like me. In China there is over a billion people so what’s a million!

Is it useful from a business standpoint to have such a following?

I have thought about what to do after my career so I will try to play a few more years but business wise I want to stay in football. Football is pretty much the only thing I can do at the moment; I think I’ll stay in football. Will I stay in China? I’m very close to saying yes but you never know. I’m interested in coaching or management or squad director or something like this but I’m still healthy and young so I want to continue playing more football.

Beijing-based Peter Davis has followed Chinese football since 2008 and is a regular contributor to Wild East Football. He can be found on Twitter and Weibo at @peteydavis