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