Young Xinjiang players train at top Chinese clubs in boost for national unity

By Shan Jie in Weifang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/30 18:58:40

○ Talented young soccer players from Xinjiang are training and studying in China's best soccer clubs

○ After adapting to a new lifestyle and studying Putonghua, some go on to play leading roles at youth and even national level

○ The Xinjiang players positively influence their communities and contribute to national unity, say authorities

Mustafa, 11, from Ili, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, trains at Shandong Luneng Taishan Football club. Photo: Li Hao/GT

As 11-year-old Mustafa walks on campus, almost everybody greets him.

"Hey Mustafa!" shouts one coach.

"You've come to see our training!" jokes a passing player from the age-14 team who rubs Mustafa's hair.

An outgoing boy with bowl haircut and a cherubic, chubby face, Mustafa is not shy about sharing his dream to play soccer like Neymar, his Brazilian idol.

Mustafa plays in the age-11 team at Luneng Taishan Football Club in East China's Shandong Province and has been training and studying in the club's Luneng Taishan football school in the city of Weifang since 2016.

He is one of 25 young players from Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at the school.

As early as 2001, the Luneng soccer school began cooperating with the Xinjiang government and soccer authorities to import and support young talent.

There have been about 70 Xinjiang players who studied at the school since then including Mirahmetjan Muzepper, the first Xinjiang local to play for China's national team.

Some soccer fans invest special hope in Xinjiang players, seeing them as a potential solution to the national team's decades of global humiliation.

The young Xinjiang players "work hard and have potential," a Luneng coach tells the Global Times.

"Soccer is a soundless language that is universal among all ethnic groups," says Tan Zhaohui, deputy general manager of Shandong Luneng sports culture branch of the State Grid Shandong Electric Power Company. 

Subi, captain of China's national Under-16 team and winner of the Golden Boy at the 2017 China Footballer of the Year award. Photo: IC

Mustafa's goal

Mustafa is training as the Global Times reporters arrive at the boarding school of China's multiple championship-winning club.

Luneng boasts one of the best youth training systems with the best facilities and coaches in China.

Opened in 1999, the campus resembles some of the fancy international schools in Beijing and Shanghai, with 26 training pitches including 19 with real grass.

Seeing the reporters approach, Mustafa promptly distributes a dozen soccer balls to teammates with exquisite long passes around the verdant pitch.

As training ends, Mustafa and best friend Quddus, on duty that day, throw all the training equipment onto a trolley.

They chat and giggle in their native Uyghur language on the way back.

In the canteen, Mustafa piles chicken legs on his plate.

"Aunty, you made good food today!" he tells the dinner lady with a big grin and thumbs-up.

All the Muslim players pick up their Halal food at a special kiosk and then sit together with their other teammates.

"The first years when we enrolled Xinjiang children, we put them together and equipped them with Xinjiang coaches," Tan, who is also the executive vice-president of the school, tells the Global Times in Luneng's head office in Jinan, capital city of Shandong.

"But we found it didn't work," Tan says. "They became a small clique and could not fit in the teams."

The school mixed up all the players and pushed the Xinjiang children harder to study Putonghua "so they will not be lonely, nor have a feeling of inferiority," Tan says.

At dinner, Mustafa's teammates joke in dialects as diverse as Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region through Inner Mongolia to Beijing.

Some learned a little Uyghur language from the Xinjiang players like "yakexi!", "bravo!" They even know a few curse words.

"If I don't become a soccer player, I will be a rapper," says Mustafa.

He exudes a warm and inclusive self-confidence.

Two years ago when he first came to Shandong, Mustafa could not speak much Putonghua.

Nor did he much care for the canteen food, notably vegetables.

It took him two days to learn how to make a bed and he often cried himself asleep at night.

To help Mustafa adjust to life at the school, his father quit his job and stayed with him in Weifang for a year.

It was his father who gave Mustafa his first soccer ball on his 4th birthday.

When Mustafa was 6, scouts from Luneng invited him to join the school in Shandong.

Ili, his hometown, is 3,974 kilometers from Weifang.

Mustafa's mother, a primary school Chinese language teacher, insisted her son was too young to leave.

Finally, at 9, Mustafa, accompanied by his father, came to start training.

His soccer and Putonghua have improved - and so has his English.

"We Xinjiang children have better pronunciation of English," he says, with a wry smile at the Global Times English-language reporter.

Mustafa has visited South Korea for tournaments and travelled with his team to other cities in China.

He is a student of class 2, grade 4. His class has 27 students from ages 9, 10 and 11 teams, eight from Xinjiang.

Schooling is free for all Luneng youth team players.

Players as young as Mustafa have about seven classes daily including Putonghua, English and math. After class, they have a one and half-hour training sessions.

Before the new semester, Mustafa wrote in a school essay that he would work hard to become captain of his team and that his future goal was to play for Luneng Taishan in China's Super League.

"My biggest dream is to play in La Liga of Spain," he says.


How about Real Madrid?

"To play for any team in La Liga would be good enough."

Mustafa has a role model: Subi, captain of China's national Under-16 team who won the Golden Boy prize in the 2017 China Footballer of the Year awards.

Subi tells the Global Times that he could not speak a word of Putonghua when he first came to Luneng aged 9, but he gradually grasped it and became a reliable leader of his team.

There are other, more complex issues.

Ihsan, the first-choice goalkeeper of Luneng's age-10 team, encountered some difficulties in obtaining a passport in time for travel to a Japanese tournament.

"But we are cooperating with local governments in Xinjiang to improve the process," Tan says. Luneng is considered "a model for national unity" by the city of Weifang, Tan notes.

The personal growth of players can influence their communities, Tan says. Subi, for example, is a hero to many Xinjiang kids.

Asadullah, 9, also from Ili, studies at Luneng Taishan football school. His teacher says he is talented at math, but not so much Chinese and English. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Soccer hotbed

There are more than 60 Xinjiang players in the adult and Under-23 teams of 32 clubs in the China Super League and China League One.

Younger Xinjiang players are training at top clubs like Evergrande Taobao Football Club in South China's Guangdong Province and China Fortune FC in North China's Hebei Province.

"Xinjiang has a great atmosphere for soccer," says Tan. "Parents take their children playing soccer very serious… Local schools also have great passion in promoting soccer."

Luneng is also helping train coaches for Xinjiang primary and high schools. Their scouts and coaches go to certain Xinjiang schools chasing talent.

The school is also seeking to help promote soccer development in other less-developed and border regions.

Luneng has built at least 27 youth talent bases across China including in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions.

Children of different ethnic groups and from different regions growing up together and knowing each other will positively influence their families and their communities, Tan believes.

"Soccer connects people of different ethnicities and from different regions," he says.


Newspaper headline: Universal language

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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