BEIJING Property tycoon Xu Jiayin's big-money foreign signings may have helped propel Guangzhou Evergrande to an unprecedented six straight Chinese Super League titles, but efforts to manufacture a home-grown star have proven more difficult.
As well as owning one of Asia's most successful soccer franchises, Xu's Evergrande Group hopes to cultivate China's next generation of talent at the two-times Asian Champions League winners.
Evergrande runs a sprawling academy in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where the most promising prospects are sent to Spain when they turn 13 to train under former Real Madrid youth coaches.
"Our academy has 2,800 children, (but) currently we haven't seen a (Lionel) Messi, nor have we seen a Cristiano Ronaldo," Xu told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, referring to the Barcelona and Real Madrid forwards.
"But with this strong fostering of young soccer talent, I believe China, with its more than one billion population, will definitely produce outstanding players."
China's soccer development has taken on an unmistakably political edge since football-mad President Xi Jinping declared ambitions that the national team, after years in the doldrums, could qualify for and eventually win a World Cup.
Xu is a standing committee member of China's top political advisory body, the China's People Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), while other well-connected billionaire businessmen, including Wanda's Wang Jianlin and Alibaba's Jack Ma are heavily invested in the sport.
Despite the rivers of money flowing into China's domestic league, the investments have yet to translate to success on the national stage for a side that have only qualified for the World Cup on one occasion in 2002.
Meanwhile, Chinese sporting authorities have grown alarmed at the explosion in transfer fees and salaries paid for foreign players, amid concerns local players were being denied opportunities to play.
In January, Chinese soccer authorities cut the number of foreign players allowed on the field for each team to three, while also warning against the lavish spending of several clubs.
Despite Xu being one of the earliest to recruit big-name foreign stars, he has been quick to adjust his tune to the prevailing political winds, with his club announcing last month it would phase out overseas players in the next three years.
"I feel foreign players who are brought in should be compatible with the standard of Chinese soccer," Xu said, speaking on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of its parliament.
"It should not become a contest to import foreign players, the focus of investment should be directed towards nurturing youth soccer."
(Reporting by Philip Wen and Clare Jim; Editing by John O'Brien)