World Cup glory is the next big goal for am­bi­tious Uygur soc­cer girls

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By LIU JING li­u­jing@chi­

When Dil­nur Mar­dan joined her school’s soc­cer team she knew al­most noth­ing about the sport, but now the 15-year-old Uygur is the team cap­tain and one of the top strik­ers, with am­bi­tions of play­ing in the women’s World Cup.

Founded in Septem­ber 2013, the Hotan No 4 Mid­dle School girls’ soc­cer team was the first in­Hotan pre­fec­ture in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

The 22 mem­bers have an av­er­age age of 12, and are all mem­bers of the Uygur eth­nic group. They train for about 30 hours a week to pre­pare for tour­na­ments. “They work re­ally hard,” said coach Akram Mokhtar. “When I fin­ish as­sign­ing train­ing tar­gets, they al­ways ask for more.”

For many of the play­ers, the chal­lenges come not only from the in­ten­sive train­ing sched­ule but also from their fam­i­lies — many par­ents pri­or­i­tize study over soc­cer, while oth­ers be­lieve girls shouldn’t play the game. “It took great ef­forts to per­suade some par­ents to let their daugh­ters wear shorts,” Akram said.

Dil­nur’s par­ents were no ex­cep­tion. At first, they re­fused to let her at­tend train­ing be­cause “soc­cer is for boys”, but even­tu­ally they re­lented af­ter more than 10 vis­its from Akram and the school prin­ci­pal, who ex­plained how play­ing soc­cer would ben­e­fit their daugh­ter.

“My par­ents now fully sup­port me be­cause the sport has taken me many places they have never been and has broad­ened my hori­zons,” Dil­nur said, adding that her par­ents are now fans of the team and of­ten watch games.

The team has­won­awards at a num­ber of lo­cal tour­na­ments, and last month it fin­ished sec­ond in the re­gional youth league.

Akram said the game brings the girls great hap­pi­ness and a sense of achieve­ment. “At first, they just played for fun. But when they make their mark, they feel proud and it en­cour­ages them to keep fight­ing.”

The suc­cess of the team has en­cour­aged more girls to stop watch­ing from the side­lines and take part them­selves. “In the past, you hardly saw girls play­ing,” Akram said. “Now, when school is over, they rush to the pitch to play, some­times even against the boys. The sport knows no gen­der, nor bound­aries,” he said.

In re­cent years, soc­cer has flour­ished in Xin­jiang’s pri­mary and mid­dle schools, and the re­gion is now a hot spot for the sport. Teams fromXin­jiang have won nu­mer­ous prizes both in and out­side of China, and chil­dren can be seen play­ing on all types of sur­faces, some­times even in bare feet.

In2011, theXin­jiang author­i­ties is­sued a mem­o­ran­dum to de­velop soc­cer across the re­gion. By the end of last year, the num­ber of stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ing in matches and com­pe­ti­tions had risen to 100,000 from more than 1,000 of Xin­jiang’s 5,100 pri­mary and mid­dle schools. Four years ago, there were only 200 schools and 10,000 stu­dents.

Within three years, soc­cer will be taught to na­tional stan­dard in 10 per­cent of Xin­jiang’s schools, and will ben­e­fit from poli­cies to sup­port teach­ing, train­ing, com­pe­ti­tions, en­roll­ments and fund­ing, ac­cord­ing to the re­gional author­i­ties.

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