The next Ron­aldo?

Sports of­fi­cials have a plan to make the coun­try a ma­jor player in the world’s most pop­u­lar game, Cui Jia re­ports from Xin­jiang.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - ByCUI JIA in Shanga­tushi, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion cui­jia@chi­nadaily.com.cn

As China works to raise its pro­file on the world soc­cer stage, sports of­fi­cials are look­ing to the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, whose res­i­dents have a pas­sion for the beau­ti­ful game.

The time dif­fer­ence be­tween China and France meant Abu­raj Memet, a pri­mary school stu­dent from Yik­sak vil­lage in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, had to get up at 3 am on July 11 to watch the fi­nal of Euro 2016 live on TV.

The 10-year-old com­mit­ted to mem­ory the mo­ment his idol, star striker Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, lifted the tro­phy above his head af­ter Por­tu­gal won the cham­pi­onship. The young striker is de­ter­mined do the same thing if he can win tour­na­ments for Yik­sak vil­lage pri­mary school soc­cer team, which has a his­tory of 131 years. Maybe he’ll even do it for Team China some­day.

China’s na­tional team has per­formed so poorly in re­cent years that Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, a ded­i­cated soc­cer fan, de­cided to take action to se­cure a brighter fu­ture for the game.

On Feb 27 last year, a meet­ing of China’s Lead­ing Group for Over­all Re­form, headed by Xi, ap­proved an action plan aimed at ex­pand­ing pub­lic in­volve­ment in the game and uti­liz­ing di­ver­si­fied train­ing pro­grams, in­volv­ing cam­pus soc­cer out­fits and professional clubs, to de­velop young play­ers and help them hone their skills.

There are high hopes that Xin­jiang, a vast re­gion in China’s far north­west, can pro­vide a wealth of fu­ture soc­cer tal­ents be­cause chil­dren in the re­gion are pas­sion­ate about the game.

More­over, blood and phys­i­o­log­i­cal tests con­ducted on a num­ber of play­ers by the Xin­jiang Sports Bu­reau sug­gest that young peo­ple from eth­nic groups, such as Uygurs and Kazaks, are ca­pa­ble of lev­els of stamina and turns of speed sim­i­lar to those of Euro­pean play­ers, ac­cord­ing to Zuneng Kerim, the head of the bu­reau.

The usual pas­sions stirred by soc­cer are in­ten­si­fied in Yik­sak, in the Kezilesu Kir­giz au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, where the game has a long his­tory.

Yik­sak vil­lage pri­mary school was founded by the Mus­abayev brothers, wealthy phi­lan­thropist busi­ness­men, in the 19th cen­tury. Later, the two brothers ex­panded their busi­ness in­ter­ests to Europe, where they first saw soc­cer.

In 1874, the brothers listed soc­cer lessons as manda­tory for chil­dren at the school and when they en­cour­aged the vil­lagers to play as well, a lo­cal ob­ses­sion was born.

In 1885, the Mus­abayevs bought a large piece of land and built a full-size soc­cer pitch for the school. They also im­ported soc­cer balls from Europe so the lo­cals could play with the real thing rather than us­ing two leather hats stuffed with cot­ton and stitched to­gether. The pri­mary school team was es­tab­lished the same year, and the vil­lagers set up teams so they could com­pete among them­selves.

The news that soc­cer had gained huge pop­u­lar­ity in a re­mote vil­lage in Xin­jiang quickly spread to the con­sulates of the United King­dom and Swe­den, which at the time were based in Kash­gar, about 27 km from Yik­sak.

In 1927, the vil­lagers were in­vited to play games against the con­sular soc­cer teams. Even now, the vil­lagers take im­mense pride in the two vic­to­ries and can proudly re­cite the scores: they won 2-1 against the UK team and beat the Swedes 7-0.

That pride and tra­di­tion has been in­her­ited by Abu­raj and his team­mates in the Yik­sak pri­mary school side, who train with their coach Ak­bar Salai, 31, on the school’s dirt pitch ev­ery day.

“The chil­dren can­not live with­out soc­cer, and nei­ther can I. They have great po­ten­tial and I re­ally hope they will have op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­ceive the best train­ing in big cities, so Abu­raj, who ac­tu­ally looks like Ron­aldo, can be­come China’s Cris­tiano Ron­aldo,” Ak­bar said.

Ak­bar learned about soc­cer from his grand­fa­ther Memet Zuneng, who watched the leg­endary games as a 7-year-old, and played right up un­til shortly be­fore his death last year.

The num­ber of chil­dren play­ing soc­cer in pri­mary and high schools has risen to 300,000 from 10,000 in 2012.

The re­gion has also put more funds into im­prov­ing the play­ing con­di­tions in schools. While wait­ing for fund­ing to ren­o­vate the school’s dirt pitch, Ak­bar re­cently started his own project to lay a small ar­ti­fi­cial grass pitch.

“Our chil­dren are very tal­ented; they need and de­serve bet­ter pitches to pre­vent in­juries and al­low them to make any moves they want,” he said.

“There’s not a sin­gle vil­lager in Yik­sak who doesn’t play soc­cer. It plays a huge role in our lives,” said Abuduli­tip Memetaji, 80, who still plays.

“One day, some­one from Yik­sak will make it to the Chi­nese na­tional team. You have my word on that,” Abuduli­tip said.

I re­ally hope they ... re­ceive the best train­ing in big cities, so Abu­raj, who ac­tu­ally looks like Ron­aldo, can be­come China’s Cris­tiano Ron­aldo.”

Ak­bar Salai, school soc­cer coach

JIANG WENYAO / XIN­HUA

Chil­dren play soc­cer in Yik­sak vil­lage, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, in 2014. The game, which has a long his­tory in the area, is a source of in­spi­ra­tion and pride for lo­cal peo­ple.

CUI JIA / CHINA DAILY

Abu­raj Memet, 10, from Yik­sak, watches a game in the town­ship tour­na­ment.

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