FC Barcelona, arguably the world's foremost football club, is set to invest up to "tens of millions of dollars" into a training and experience center on the island province of Hainan, making it the first ever foreign club to have a major direct investment in China's booming football market.
The project, a joint venture with Mission Hills Group, shows the Spanish La Liga side's long-term commitment to China, a club official says. It is also the first of its kind in Barcelona's 118-year history.
Calling the project a "partnership between the strong", Ken Chu, chairman and chief executive officer of MHG, confirms each side will contribute half of the total investment.
"It is a joint investment between our two companies," Chu, who is also a member of China's top political advisory body, told China Daily recently in Beijing.
China's football market has boomed in recent years and is now the biggest in Asia, says Xu Jiayin, controller of Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC. The football sector is reported to employ 500,000 to 600,000 people.
Central government plans to have 50,000 soccer-focused schools by 2025 and has also set a goal of 50 million people playing soccer on a daily basis by 2020.
Foreign football clubs are actively involved in China's youth soccer education, with prestigious clubs flocking to the country to open academies and youth training camps in recent years.
Chu says other foreign clubs have tapped into "the world's biggest market", mainly through franchises by permitting Chinese partners to use their brands, but have little investment.
Evergrande, of which Xu is chairman, has invested 1.2 billion yuan ($175 million; 164 million euros; 143 million) to set up a football academy in 2012 in Guangdong in cooperation with Real Madrid CF. Real Madrid will provide football training staff for the school.
Chu says MHGs partnership with Barcelona is not about "inviting foreign trainers" to China, but will "clone" Barcelona's world-class youth training system. MHG will take care of its promotion in China.
The Hainan facility, in the provincial capital Haikou, will be Barcelona's 26th overseas academy, and for the first time the club will dispatch its own technical staff to directly manage it.
"This is our commitment to China and the Chinese people that we are here to stay," says Jenny Yang, project manager of Barcelona's Asia-Pacific headquarters, in Hong Kong.
"Barcelona wishes to establish a lasting presence in China," Yang says.
In addition to a training center, the project will include an experience center to showcase Barcelona's rich history, while providing opportunities for visitors to experience the magic of football using cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality.
"We are very pleased to see the development of football that China enjoys at the moment and, in a humble way, we wish to add our experience and value. Our primary aim is to help discover and nurture future local football talent, and encourage grassroots interest in this sport," Yang says.
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