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Sowing the seeds of success

Editor: Zhang Jianfeng 丨China Daily

12-12-2017 10:37 BJT

With 28 years of grassroots coaching experience behind him, Gao Yuan has good reason to describe himself as one of the seed sowers of China's soccer dream.

Kindergarten kids in Tonglu county, Zhejiang province enjoy their first soccer lesson under the guidance of a professional coach in September. [Xu Junyong/For China Daily]

Kindergarten kids in Tonglu county, Zhejiang province enjoy their first soccer lesson under the guidance of a professional coach in September. [Xu Junyong/For China Daily]

And he firmly believes those seeds are starting to sprout, even if the country's senior side came up short in its latest attempt at World Cup qualification this year.

"The starting point of the country's soccer landscape was like a desert, and for decades we have been sowing the seeds for the future," said Gao, who is now the director of the soccer education and research department at Capital University of Physical Education and Sports in Beijing.

"If everyone can truly work for the good of the future generations, excellent Chinese soccer players will emerge. I'm not bragging. It will take time and I always have faith."

Gao's conviction is mirrored in numerous other long-toiling devotees of the game here.

A thousand kilometers away in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, Wang Liangchao has been running a free soccer clinic for local children for over 20 years.

Kids aged 4 to 13 can join the clinic on weekends and vacations. Apart from their boots and uniform, tuition is free, with Wang referring to the initiative, which began in 1996, as "the light of hope" as far as the country's fortunes on the pitch are concerned.

"The original purpose of starting a free soccer clinic was to attract more children to the game," said Wang, who began his coaching career at Northwest University of Political Science and Law in 1991.

"This is just like a hope project in soccer. I want to start a process, which can be easily copied and spread by other coaches, to promote soccer among the younger generations. My youngest student was four years old."

China's grassroots efforts have not gone unnoticed, even earning international acclaim.

Last month, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) received the Asian Football Confederation's President Recognition Award for Grassroots Football at the AFC's annual gala in Thailand.

The award, which the CFA also won in 2013, recognizes the special attention China has paid to technical programs recently, with over 260 training courses involving around 17,000 participants conducted nationwide.

"We would like to thank the AFC for giving this important recognition to China's grassroots development," said Lin Xiaohua, a senior CFA official, at the gala.

"Over the last several years, strong support from the Chinese government has enabled us to launch many grassroots programs. A lot has been done but we are determined to do more to increase soccer participation in our country."

Beyond winning

Winning is the ultimate goal of any competitive sport. However, both Wang and Gao have urged people to think beyond silverware and championships to better sustain China's soccer development.

"My father was also a soccer coach and I was raised in the culture and atmosphere of the sport," said Wang. "I always feel that it is my duty to promote the sport, and that is why I started the free clinic to influence the younger generation.

"The most significant effect of the grassroots game is letting more people, especially children, regard soccer as an indispensable part of their life."

Gao also advocates such an holistic approach.

"We are not lacking tactical and technical training for children, and winning matches seems to be the only thing that matters," said Gao.

"However, the most important thing that we have missed in the past is to immerse kids in the culture of soccer."

Gao admitted that only a very small number of his students are good enough to eventually turn pro. But he's adamant that doesn't mean his work is in vain.

"No matter how good they are as players, lots of my students might just be PE teachers in primary schools or middle schools," he said.

"That's good enough because they can influence more young kids. In the future, those students could also be soccer club managers, soccer journalists or soccer event organizers. This can help build the game's culture and environment."

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