Guangzhou, Beijing ACL thrashings amplify Chinese football's youth malaise

Guangzhou lost all six of their matches in AFC Champions League 2021, conceding 17 goals and scoring just one. Kaikungwon Duanjumroon / Power Sport Images

From the moment Guangzhou and Beijing Guoan announced they would send youth outfits to compete in the group stage of AFC Champions League 2021 -- because of fixture clashes with the ongoing Chinese Super League campaign -- it was accepted that both teams were never going to make much of an impact.

Even with expectations tempered, the displays the two sides produced over the past three weeks -- and the results that followed -- should give Chinese football plenty of cause for concern.

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This is not an attack on the aspiring young footballers, who were thrown into the lion's den and were not found wanting with regards to the effort they produced on the pitch.

But there was a clear gulf in quality between them and their opponents that must be worrying for a country that remains the world's most-populous nation with 1.4 billion, and whose national team is still regarded as among Asia's leading sides.

From a combined 12 games, Beijing and Guangzhou combined for a measly solitary point, with the latter losing all six games. A total of 40 goals were conceded and both squads ranked among the competition's four worst defences.

They were always going to struggle against leading contenders like Kawasaki Frontale, Cerezo Osaka and Daegu, all of whom marched on into the Round of 16. Yet, matches against tournament debutants United City and Port, as well as Kitchee -- who had not won an ACL match prior to this season -- were missed opportunities to make an impression and get positive results.

While admittedly a speculative assumption, it is difficult to imagine that a Japanese or South Korean youth team would have posted such disappointing results in a similar situation.

Guangzhou lost 5-0 in their fifth match to a Cerezo side whose starting XI featured six players aged 23 or younger, while Vietnamese goalkeeper Dang Van Lam made his debut at this level.

Still boasting a handful of seasoned campaigners, Cerezo would have been favourites to win that match -- but by that dominant a margin?

Of course, Beijing and Guangzhou's best youngsters would have stayed on with the first team for their domestic commitments, so the teams that were fielded would not have boasted the cream of the academy crop.

One would still have imagined that there would be a couple of youngsters to catch the eye and suggest they would one day feature prominently at the senior level; yet they were few and far between.

Beijing left-back Naibijiang Mohemaiti offered plenty of endeavour while centre-back Ruan Qilong was a sturdy presence but one that still needs plenty of refinement. For Guangzhou, anchorman Zhang Zili was perhaps the only one that could claim to have been a consistent performer throughout the campaign.

It is these issues that make it easier to understand why the China national team has turned to the naturalisation of foreign players, with players like Elkeson, Nico Yennaris, Tyias Browning and Alan Carvalho making immediate impacts.

However, it is a rarely a viable long-term solution.

Even looking beyond past stalwarts from yesteryear that were good enough to play in the Premier League in Sun Jihai (Manchester City), Li Tie (Everton) and Zheng Zhi (Charlton), it was not too long ago that China produced a talent like Wu Lei, who would go on to feature in La Liga for Espanyol and even score against the mighty Barcelona.

Based on their current youth malaise, further amplified by Beijing and Guangzhou's recent woes in the ACL, it remains to be seen when the next star of Chinese football will be produced rather than procured.