No chance to go pro, Ai Kanxiang sets sights on coaching
Ai Kanxiang is about to finish his first semester at college, where he is working hard to make his dream come true.
A physical education major, he hopes to become a PE teacher and train China's future soccer players. Two years ago, though, his dream was even bolder. Ai hoped to join the men's national soccer team, but the 20-year-old has experienced humbling twists and turns on the soccer pitch.
Born and raised in a small village in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture in Southwest China's Yunnan province, Ai garnered public attention last year after videos of him playing soccer in a river went viral.
Demonstrating creativity, such as the way to do a precise bicycle kick in the water, he became an online celebrity, with some fans even saying that he was "better than professional players".
Some of those professional players, like Liu Yang and Wei Shihao, recorded videos to encourage Ai, and he later received an offer to train with a professional team in the provincial capital, Kunming, further boosting his confidence. He then made up his mind to develop his skills, setting the goal of joining the national team someday.
But when Ai finally played with the team, he was humbled. He was barely able to keep up. His skills were not as strong as he had imagined, and he had little awareness of teamwork.
The setback cooled his enthusiasm. Ai realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. He needed more experience. So he set a new and more practical goal－to apply to university and become a PE teacher.
The ever-smiling Ai comes from the Blang ethnic group, and the first time he kicked a ball was during his first year in junior high school.
"I only knew about soccer from textbooks as a child. But I fell in love with the game in September 2015 when I made my debut," Ai said, adding that his troubles fade away on the pitch, and he especially enjoys the feeling of being sweaty after a long match.
But in the steep mountainous area where he lived, finding a flat area to play was challenging. "We created a small pitch using tree branches and stones and even played soccer in the river," he said.
At the beginning, playing in the water was mostly about staying cool. "The summers in my hometown are so hot, so I can play longer in the river."
He then discovered that playing in the water was not only fun, but also had benefits. Whether it was doing a header or a bicycle kick, you were less likely to get hurt, he said.
After two years of practicing in the river, his legs had become much more powerful. He was faster and stronger, even scored nine goals in one game.
As a high school boarder, Ai only had three days off every two weeks. Each time he went home, he helped his parents pick tea leaves and hoe the fields. After chores, he played soccer with other children in the village, organizing games in the water and teaching them new tricks.
"I hoped they would truly feel the joy of soccer," he said.
In August, Ai was accepted at the Yunnan Minzu University in Kunming to major in physical education.
He said that his experiences as a high schooler will help him understand his future students better, as well as bringing him closer to his dream.
Xinhua contributed to this story.