Shanghai (AFP) – He is known as the “Godfather of Shanghainese football”, is a former player and manager of the Chinese national team, and owns a side in the Spanish league.
Now, at the age of 73, the charismatic Xu Genbao is taking on his toughest assignment yet: forming a club from scratch to help China finally become a competitive force in world football.
Some of the biggest names in Chinese football, including international winger Wu Lei, were at the recent launch of the new Chongming Genbao Football Club.
Wu was once dubbed “China’s Maradona” by Xu, the man who discovered him and many others now playing in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
“You are always telling me to retire and to be honest, I really want to,” Xu, sporting his trademark dark glasses, told journalists at the launch at a stately hotel in Shanghai.
But Xu looks nowhere near as old as his years — he turns 74 in January — and now is not the time to quit the football scene in China. Because under President Xi Jinping the government is throwing money at ramping up the quality of Chinese football.
CSL clubs have invested vast amounts of cash in foreign stars such as Shanghai SIPG’s 60-million-euro Brazilian Oscar and the disappointing Carlos Tevez at Shanghai Shenhua, both reportedly on some of the highest wages in world football.
China is also forging partnerships with clubs and football associations across the globe to help drag up the level of Chinese youth players, and Xu wants to play his part.
“Today, we have all five generations in the same room,” Xu said at the launch of Chongming Genbao, referring to an array of past, present and perhaps future football stars.
“It is to combine our forces for Chinese football and make efforts for Chinese football.
“I hope that Shanghai can produce more talents to contribute to the nation and get good results for the national team.”
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Known for having a temper, Xu has reigned over football in Shanghai for three decades.
After ending his playing career, he coached several Chinese clubs, including Shanghai Shenhua.
But his passion was always for youth development and in 2000 he founded Genbao Football Base, a centre of excellence on Chongming Island, a strip of land northeast of Shanghai.
Xu was inspired by Manchester United and their commitment to youth players, epitomised by the “Class of 92”, the crop of homegrown stars that included Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes.