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Going for goal on the Loess Plateau

Updated: Apr 3, 2024 Print
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A decade since a transformative trip abroad, the soccer players of Zhidan county, nestled in the Loess Plateau of Northwest China's Shaanxi province, continue to pursue their soccer dreams.

In Zhidan, a county of over 160,000 residents, soccer has flourished, with over 6,000 players and more than 30 modern artificial turf pitches across 25 schools.

Back in 2014, the county sent 20 youngsters to Germany for soccer training, culminating in a friendly match with their peers in Berlin.

Ding Changbao, head of the local soccer association, led that pioneering group. Since that landmark trip, Ding and his team have guided over 200 teenagers, transforming their lives through the beautiful game.

"In the next decade, I will try my best to keep chasing my dream of establishing a soccer club as great as Real Madrid on the Loess Plateau," said the 45-year-old Ding.

European influence

Recalling their trip to Germany in March 2014, Ding said: "That was the first time my players went abroad. We all knew that Germany is a powerhouse in the soccer world, so everyone in my team cherished that chance."

For Zhou Xu, now a Chang'an University student, those days in Germany are etched in his memory.

"One day, when I practiced on the stairs of a stadium, a local coach told me that one Germany international had practiced at the exact same spot when he was a kid. Although I didn't know many soccer stars at that time, I trained harder to become an outstanding player in the future," Zhou recalled.

Zhou's teammate Yao Jie was very impressed while watching a first-team training session of Bundesliga side Wolfsburg.

"They had amazing skills and fantastic tactics. When we returned to our hometown, we all had the determination to become good players and bring Zhidan more trophies and glory," Yao said.

Ding's experiences in Germany reshaped his vision. Rather than solely focusing on nurturing professional players, he sought to embed soccer into the lifestyle of Zhidan's youth. "I want to improve the comprehensive qualities of my players," he explained.

'We play every day'

China's failure to progress beyond the group stage at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, without winning a single match, made Ding realize just how big the gap was between the national team and the sport's powerhouses.

Although soccer has been a popular sport in China through the decades, Zhidan barely had 60 players when Ding's club was founded in 2003. He then established the Zhidan Football Association in 2007 in a bid to foster a deeper soccer culture.

Ding's dedication led to soccer's introduction in schools, and by 2010, Zhidan was selected for a national youth pilot program. The county government's subsequent annual funding of 3 million yuan (about $450,000) to the association marked a new era of accessible soccer training for Zhidan's young players.

"Now we play soccer every day, and participate in the county's campus league on weekends," enthused 8-year-old Yang Shuhan of Zhidan Red Army Elementary School.

"Even classmates who are not selected for the school team can play soccer 45 minutes per week, under the guidance of professional coaches."

Since claiming its first provincial trophy in 2015, Zhidan has amassed 47 titles across various competitions and levels.

Grassroots gains

Last year saw the establishment of Zhidan's youth soccer school, with former Chinese international Wang Tao at the helm.

"I will share my experience with the young guys, helping them chase their dreams of becoming professional players, or enrolling in universities," Wang said.

In addition to his role at the school, Wang dedicates his weekends to coaching two under-14 teams in Zhidan.

"Zhidan won the women's soccer gold at the 2022 Shaanxi Provincial Games. I will help my players to improve their skills and try to defend our title at the 2026 Games," Wang said.

Looking ahead, Ding is committed to further strengthening the foundation of grassroots soccer. "We will try to build a youth training center, as well as a professional field with natural grass," he said.

As Ding continues to champion soccer within educational settings, he also harbors ambitions of elevating the county's game to a professional level. "I'm looking forward to setting up a professional team in Zhidan, even though it is in the third tier in China," he declared.


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