Englishman Rowan Simons has lived in China since the 1980s. He has his own media company and also runs Guinness World Records in China, but is better known in this country for his career as a football commentator on Beijing TV and as an advocate for football reform.
Simons founded China ClubFootball FC, an English-style amateur football club for expats and now mostly locals. It has more than 4,000 members, making it one of the largest amateur football clubs in Beijing.
He wrote a book, Bamboo Goalposts, on his experience with Chinese football that became a bestseller when it was published in 2008.
How did you become interested in football?
I never played professional football. But I was the captain of my school team and captain of my club team at 10 to 13 in Surrey, south of London, the town of Guildford. The name of my first club was Ockham.
My family are very big sports fans. My father loves rugby and my mother was a member of a tennis club. She still plays competitions in her 70s.
How did you begin your adventure in China?
I came to China in 1987 as a student. I studied Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University. I very much enjoyed my time and I saw this massive opportunity in China to develop things.
Back at that time nothing had happened in consumer society. Anything I remembered from home wowed the Chinese people as “amazing ideas” – it was just because I came from a more advanced country. That was the opportunity.
I got a job at Chinese Central Television and I decided to stay. I originally worked as an English teacher for the newscasters of its English channel. Later, in the ’90s, I moved to be a football commentator at Beijing Television for some years.
As a foreign commentator talking about football in Chinese?
Yes. For the English Premier League and the FA Cup. I was a guest commentator. The show had two hosts and a Chinese guest commentator as well. I mainly spoke from an English football fan’s perspective on the history of the English clubs, the rivalries between the teams, the cultural contexts, and a little bit of humour.
On British TV you wouldn’t need that because everybody already knows Manchester United was founded by railway workers, but for a Chinese audience they need this kind of background.
It was very hard in the beginning because the language was slow to translate. But afterwards it was fun.
How was your football club founded?
I love football and I wanted to play football. But I found that there was no football in China. No clubs, no local leagues, no amateur teams, no football in schools. I found none of those things we took for granted in England.
In the ’80s, English football was already very well known in Beijing and big cities and European football was very popular on TV. But nobody played it. They just watched it like an entertainment on TV. It seemed very strange to me.
So first of all, as an amateur player, I tried to organise a team for foreigners to start to play games. As it goes, I saw the fast growth of business and sponsorship of football in this country – but still no locals played.
So finally in 1997, I decided grass-roots football can be a business and football should be a business in China, like it is everywhere.
What’s different about running a football club in China?
In China it was very hard to make happen because, at that time, sport was a government-controlled activity. All of the associations are government bodies.
It took us a long time to get permission. We spent nearly a year trying to explain we did not want to become a professional football club like Beijing Guoan and we just wanted to organise amateur football, grass-roots football. That was a very different idea to them.
Once we had our licence in 2001 we began the business of grass-roots football.
There was no external financing. We funded it ourselves. But we were grateful for some sponsorship support.
How did you turn the expat hobby club into a commercial business?
That happened on the day we got our licence in 2001. We had already been hiring pitches, referees, playing a league in a loose way. As soon as we had a company, all of these moved into the company.
The kids’ football started a couple of years later, in 2004. The thinking behind this one is simple. When looking at the foreigners’ applications to our club we saw many English teachers, and we saw some of them also had football coaching qualifications.
We came up with an idea: what if we bring English teaching to the football pitches? Learning English while playing football should be a good idea. We asked these people to work with us and teach English through football. That’s how it started.
Was “Learning English” appealing to Chinese middle-class parents?
Our first client was Beijing International School. We provided high-standard football classes to their students. Then we started to build with other international schools, which were happy to work with us. Then we started to go to Chinese schools, which was hard.
We eventually got the new generation of Chinese parents, who are well educated, wanting the most of their child, wanting their child to be happy and having a balanced upbringing and searching for the solutions, to join us – more and more of them.
“Learning English while playing football” was very important selling point for convincing mothers to let their children go to play football.
People like my coaching team. We have 14 European-qualified coaches. In the beginning they were all foreign kids; now 70 per cent of kids are Chinese.
What’s been the biggest challenge for your club so far?
From our first year in 2001, it took us 12 years to break even.
Twelve years of very huge struggles. Without the very deep passion of the people involved, it would not have been possible.
The year 2008 was the worst year for our business in our history because of the Olympic Games, which almost killed grass-roots sports in Beijing.
For the whole summer, there was a ban on group activities inside the fifth ring road. All of our matches were cancelled for the whole of the Olympic summer. It was a disaster. Many of those small sports clubs didn’t survive. We got to survive because by that stage we were already a certain size so we had some momentum. And we focused our business on the spring and autumn period. But it was very tough.
Did the Chinese state football authorities take you as a challenger to their system?
We don’t have any problem with the government. They didn’t give us any trouble or interfere with what we do, which is quite amazing to me. But it also shows how far away the government was from even understanding what football should be that they didn’t really care what we were doing.
I am the chairman of Beijing’s biggest grass-roots football club. We have players playing every weekend in Beijing, at 30 locations across the town. But I have no position in the Beijing Football Association, and I have no contribution to make to the BFA running our game in our city.
Because you are a foreigner?
Historically it was a governmental organisation so there wasn’t space for an outsider, whether you are foreign or Chinese.
Now the State Council has issued the Sports Reform Plan. I read that plan. It was a very, very happy day for me.
It says very clearly the FA has to change and open up. And the government has to leave and the FA should be run by the stakeholders of football, experts, and very specifically it talks about “international experts”.
The plan was issued in 2014 and it’s been two years. Is such change really happening?
No. I haven’t seen any practical change.
The reform plan is a wonderful plan, a long-term plan which China needs. President Xi [Jinping] put reform of the FA at the very top of his agenda, but it’s also the hardest thing.
What’s been stopping the reform? Why is the reform so difficult?
When I saw the president’s speech about the football reform, I thought he was asking China a much bigger question, about whether China, as a big society, can actually organise properly something as simple as football. If we can’t even organise football properly, how can we think about our civil society?
The big problem in China that sports tackles directly is corruption. Fair play is at the heart of sports. And it’s China’s problem.
These are principles and morals, such as respect for each other, respect for truth, respect for fair play, respect for meritocracy. These are all the things that China is missing so massively and what sports could bring about.
What else in Chinese society or culture do you see as relevant to football development?
I see a middle-class has emerged, who are desperate for the type of experience and quality of life that comes in clubs, social groups and societies. That is also the basis of grass-roots football.
Can a similar club model be copied to big cities like Shanghai, where the middle class has developed? Do you have such plan already?
Yes. Every single city should have network. But coaching capacity is a big problem.
We will start to move into different cities. But the truth is that after all this time, the Beijing market still has much room for growth. We are so far away in Beijing if China wants to have the same rate of participation. There is a long way to go.
When will you regard yourself as being successful with the football club in China?
A popular term recently is social enterprise. We kind of see we would fit into this area.
We’d like to make money and we deserve it, and it is possible because it can be in any developed market with a middle class that seeks quality of life and pays for quality experiences.
But we absolutely also have an impact on society. We are building communities and friendships. Another thing I have seen in China is the stratification of society, with little mobility between the social levels. Is it possible for the taxi driver kid to meet the CEO kid in Chinese society? Sport provides that fair, level playing field.
The side product of my plan is many happy kids. I don’t know if there is going to be a national team player, that’s not our aim. But if you want a national team and use the current Soviet system, my way will work quicker.