Feature: Sowing the seeds of grassroots football on Loess Plateau

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, February 20, 2021
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By sportswriters Yao Youming and Ma Bangjie

XI'AN, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- Tucked in a narrow valley between mountains, the remote, small county of Zhidan was one of the poorest parts of China when American journalist Edgar Snow ventured across the Loess Plateau in the country's northwest in 1936.

Today, although still less developed than coastal regions, Zhidan is well-known nationwide for its success in grassroots football development.

Only around 60 people played football on the dusty ground in the barren reaches of Zhidan nearly 20 years ago, when China qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first and only time. Today, that number has risen to 6,000, and 32 modern artificial turf pitches have been built in the Shaanxi province county that 160,000 people call home.

All these achievements could not have been made without one man - Ding Changbao, president of the Zhidan Football Association. With his help, 246 students from rural Zhidan have changed their destinies to enroll at professional clubs or universities, leading to some parents dubbing him "Ding the Good Man."

But Ding didn't start with being good; he started with something crazier - a dream to establish a football club as great as Real Madrid on the Loess Plateau.

"China's embarrassing exit from the 2002 FIFA World Cup after losing all three matches in the group stage was a shock to me. I wanted to help China become strong in the football world," said Ding.

His plan didn't start well. The following year, Ding's club opened, played in provincial competitions, and returned home empty-handed.

"Only around 60 people played football in the whole county, and half of them were children," said Ding, "That's why."

He realized the major problem hindering the development of the sport in China was a lack of players. His friend Zhang Lu, a legendary Chinese footballer and sports commentator, told him the solution was to make football more popular.

"It was in 2007, I wrote a letter to Zhang. In his reply, he suggested setting up a county football association," said Ding, "He told me to give up vanity. Be practical, he said. Make children love football. That's the correct way to develop the sport."

To get into campuses, Ding waited at the office gate of the county education department for two weeks before he finally met the department head and his schools program was approved.

Under Ding's scheme, football was included in compulsory education in Zhidan. Professional coaches were hired to teach in primary schools and high schools, and gifted students were made available to be selected for a professional career.

In 2010, Zhidan was included as one of the pilot counties in a national program to promote football among students. The next year, the county government began to allocate an annual fund of 100,000 yuan (15,000 U.S. dollars) to the Zhidan Football Association, with that grant increased to three million yuan (450,000 U.S. dollars) in 2014.

Abundant financial support means all Zhidan students can receive free football training. In 2015, the county's football team won the first trophy in a provincial tournament.

The success boosted Ding's confidence. He was occupied by activities and competitions. One day, he had more than 600 phone calls and his cellphone was dead.

The 41-year-old was so busy that he had to postpone scheduled surgery, and didn't have a steel plate removed from his spine until last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the 20,000 Zhidan students who take football classes across 23 schools, many have fallen in love with the sport and walked out of the mountains. Because of their footballing talent, a total of 246 students have been admitted by colleges or selected by football clubs across the country.

Fu Jie, who plays professionally for China's third-tier side Beijing Chengfeng, is considered one of the most successful players from Zhidan.

The 19-year-old started playing football in 2009. He trained hard after school and played games at weekends. In 2013, Fu joined the Evergrande Football School, a football school set up by the Evergrande Group, investor of China's top football club Guangzhou FC.

"Football has changed my life," said Fu. "Mr Ding brought me to the world of football. He has given me a new option in my life. For the young people who are gifted at football and can endure hardship, playing football is a good choice."

The decision of Zhidan to popularize football is now being replicated across China. In 2015, the Zhidan Football Association began to work with a top-level middle school in Hebei Province, north China.

Jin Qiaoqiao is one of the first three girls to have benefited from the collaboration. Her impressive footballing skills led her to being accepted into Handan No.1 Middle School, after she obtained a high score in the entrance exam.

"If it weren't for football, I wouldn't be able to leave Zhidan and have a better life," said the now-college student.

With seeds of hope like Fu and Jin sprouting across the country, Ding is still plowing on the Loess Plateau, cultivating the soil for China's grassroots football. Enditem

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