Xinjiang scores on the national stage at last

Updated: 2013-09-17 08:48

By Sun Xiaochen in Shenyang and Cui Jia in Urumqi (China Daily)

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Strong youth foundations

The challenges won't hamper the foundations of youth soccer. Uygur children demonstrate a passion for the game comparable to that seen in Brazil, said Liu Yi, deputy director of the Xinjiang Sports Bureau, who oversees the development of youth sports.

"Wherever you go in Xinjiang, you see children happily playing soccer on all types of surfaces, such as dirt patches and grassland. They even play in their bare feet. They just love it," he said.

Xinjiang scores on the national stage at last

Xinjiang's Under-20 soccer team (in the green strip) in action against the Liaoning province team during the National Games in Shenyang. Cui Meng / China Daily

To fuel the passion, Xinjiang decided in 2011 to promote youth soccer by organizing regionwide games, laying soccer pitches and providing coaches. The move seems to have paid off, because the number of primary and high school students playing the game in Xinjiang has risen to 100,000 from 10,000 in 2011.

As if to emphasize that upsurge in participation, the Under-13 team from Urumqi No. 5 Primary School claimed two championships in July.

The team scored 71 goals in six games and won the National School League in Beijing before winning the Weifang Cup, the 2013 International Youth Soccer Tournament held in Shandong province a week later, beating opponents from Japan and South Korea.

"The Japanese team challenged us to a rematch after we won the tournament, and we beat them again," said head coach Yalimemet Muhsut, who has been coaching students at the school for 20 years.

Azmet Arken, 11, the team's main striker, knows his position and role in the team to a tee. "Our team plays together like a family, I think it's something China's national team could learn from us. The players may have better individual skills, but they don't have the bond we have," he said.

Xinjiang scores on the national stage at last

Yalimemet dreams of providing players for the national team, but a lack of opportunity means many players have little choice but to quit the game while still young.

He admitted that he always feels sad when he thinks of a talented goalkeeper who is just 17, but has left soccer to work in his family's business. "He is tall and very flexible, but he just couldn't see any future," said Yalimemet, with a rueful shake of the head.

He stressed that the region desperately needs a top-drawer professional team.

One local team, Xinjiang Haitang FC, mostly comprised of players from the region's Under-20 squad, played in China's third-division last year, but hasn't registered for the league this year because the players either signed for higher-level league clubs or simply retired to look for work when the National Games ended.

In May 2012, the team's home game against Beijing Sangao attracted more than 46,000 fans, a record attendance for the league, and made other clubs slightly envious in the process, according to an online report on Sina.

"If we had a professional team, the kids could work their way up steadily. But if that doesn't happen, many of them will fall through the rungs on the ladder," commented Yalimemet.

In 2012, he spent 15 days with FC Bayern Munich in Germany, learning about youth training. "Children need to have the best coaches, and we don't have enough of them," he said.

The school has four teams, three for boys and one for girls. The children train for approximately three hours every day under the guidance of just four coaches, who, with the exception of Yalimemet, are all part-timers.

Yisakjon Abliz, assistant coach of this summer's double-title-winning team, is a graduate of the school. He drives a taxi at night because coaching doesn't pay enough to support his family. "I just want soccer to stay in my life. Seeing how happy the children are when they're playing is the greatest reward," said the 31-year-old.

He added that finding halal food suitable for the children is one of the biggest problems when the team plays outside Xinjiang. "We always carry a lot of naan bread because finding Halal restaurants is often very difficult."

He said the children can now watch top-flight games on television, and so their understanding of the game is much more advanced than when he played in the school team. "The children often come to me in the morning and show me the new moves they learned from games played the previous night. It's amazing how quickly they learn new things."