Cup triumph in Gansu gives sport major boost at grassroots level
Jingchuan Wenhui, an amateur soccer team registered in a small county in Gansu province, made headlines after sending Chinese Super League giant Beijing Guo'an crashing out of the Chinese Football Association Cup in mid-November.
In one of the competition's biggest upsets, the team held four-time Cup winner Guo'an to a 2-2 draw after 90 minutes, before winning the penalty shootout 7-5.
The shock victory triggered heated discussion on social media, with several related topics trending on various platforms.
Despite having professional players, the club competes in the fourth-tier CFA Member Association Champions League, or CMCL, which is an amateur division.
Wang Zhen, president of the Jingchuan Football Association in Pingliang city, Gansu, said, "Rumors spread that our team comprises deliverymen, sports teachers and high school students, but that's not the case.
"Soccer is no joke. Our players are professionals, or have had some professional experience. They train for at least two hours each day under instruction from the coaching staff members."
Wang, 35, who also plays for and is an assistant coach at Jingchuan Wenhui, wanted to be a professional player since childhood.
In 2013, supported by the local sports bureau, Wang and other grassroots players registered the Jingchuan 744300 soccer club, named after the county's postal code.
"At that time, the team had more than 30 members, all of them amateurs, including sports teachers, doctors, civil servants and people running their own small businesses," Wang said.
"During weekends, we trained and played on school playgrounds, as we had no training field of our own."
Since being formed, the team has won the local league in Pingliang each season.
With some adjustments and restructuring, the club gradually became more professional. In 2021, it was renamed Jingchuan Wenhui FC, and represented the Gansu Football Association for the first time in the CMCL.
"We now have 150 players from across China, including 80 youth players from Gansu. In addition to our first team, which plays in the CMCL, we have an under-19 side and an under-17 team," Wang said.
The victory against Beijing Guo'an brought a wave of publicity to Jingchuan, a small county with a population of about 350,000.
However, the players in the Cup match were mainly from Beihai Jichi FC, a club in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. In 2021, Jingchuan Wenhui and Beihai Jichi signed a three-year cooperation deal. The clubs registered with the Jingchuan civil affairs bureau to play in the CFA Cup.
Yao Jun, a representative of Beihai Jichi, said: "Jichi has good facilities and good players. We needed the opportunity to play in the CFA Cup, while Wenhui wanted more professional players."
Sixteen teams qualify for the final round of the CMCL. A team can win a CFA Cup place only when it has qualified for the final round for two consecutive years.
Jingchuan Wenhui finished in 15th place in the league in 2021 and in 14th position this year, winning entry to the Cup competition.
However, Beihai Jichi did not rank in the top 16 last year, so to avoid losing players, and to compete at a higher level, it turned to cooperation with Wenhui.
Yao attributes his team's achievements to hard work.
"In the past year, we played more than 80 matches, far more than teams in the Chinese Super League, or CSL. As long as there are registration channels and we have qualified players, we will definitely compete," Yao said.
When their club was drawn against Beijing Guo'an, Jingchuan Wenhui players showed no signs of nerves. Members of the coaching staff drew up a detailed plan for the Cup match, and the club's players had 54 percent of possession during the game.
Du Zexin, 19, who had just made the first team from the under-19 side, scored the first goal in the match.
Yao said: "These matches are like tests. Only through a continuous examination and review process can we continue to progress. As long as we strive to pursue our dreams, grassroots players can become heroes."
By promoting cooperation between the two clubs, Yao aims to cultivate more young players, help professional players from Gansu broaden their horizons, and take soccer in the province to a higher level.
He said it was sad to see many professionally trained players in the 18 to 20 age group failing to land contracts with professional clubs, or being dropped after not making the first teams.
Yao wants to help these young men continue playing soccer, or to make the transition to coaching and refereeing. "We want to assist them in pursuing their soccer dreams. Even if they don't turn professional, they can still do work related to soccer," he said.
Chasing a dream
Although Jingchuan Wenhui is gradually transforming into a professional club, it still faces problems such as a lack of funds, a permanent sponsor and a home ground.
"Despite these difficulties, I think our love for soccer will help us overcome such hurdles. Everyone is enjoying the sport and trying to realize their dreams," Wang said.
The club receives an annual donation of 200,000 yuan ($28,660) from an avid soccer fan who owns a local school.
"It's not much money, but without his support, the club cannot operate," Wang said.
Even if they don't get the chance to play, the club's older players always accompany the team to away matches as substitutes, assistant coaches, or team doctors.
Li Xin, a player and founding member of Jingchuan Wenhui, missed the match with Beijing Guo'an due to COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control measures, but he watched the game online.
"After our victory, I looked back to the days when my friends and I played soccer as kids. After 20 years, we still love the game and have finally gained recognition," Li said.
The team was formed due to local soccer enthusiasts' love for the game, Li said, adding that he and a group of friends have played soccer together since they were at primary school and junior high school.
"I think the 1998 World Cup in France planted the seeds of a soccer dream for myself and my schoolmates. Some of us had to give up the game due to health issues, work, or family problems. But as long as we can get a team together, the rest of us will stick at it, even if we need to foot the bills from our own pockets," he added.
After the victory over Beijing Guo'an, more parents approached Li to inquire about youth soccer training.
He said that over the years, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of people talking about and developing a love for soccer.
The Chinese Football Association said in an article published on its website: "Soccer fans are enthusiastic, and they encourage and motivate the players. Supporters can no longer ignore the name Jingchuan Wenhui."
The association sent the club a congratulatory letter, describing the team as an "important name card" for promoting the image of the county, Pingliang and Gansu.
"We will increase support for the construction of match facilities, events arrangement, and training services," said Mu Dongmei, head of the sports bureau in Pingliang.
Pingliang Sports Park, which is expected to open by the end of this year, will serve as a free training base and home ground for Jingchuan Wenhui. With estimated investment of 1.6 billion yuan, the park covers about 30 hectares and has two standard-size soccer fields.
Jingchuan Wenhui will also conduct training sessions and other activities to promote soccer, with support from the Pingliang sports bureau, Mu said. Together with the local education department, the bureau will encourage the club to stage public activities aimed at promoting soccer in primary and secondary schools.
In recent years, the authorities in Pingliang have enthusiastically supported the development of soccer, including setting up fields and staging campus leagues. Each year, up to a dozen schools in the city include soccer among their sports activities.
Training for soccer coaches and referees has also been strengthened in Pingliang, which now has more than 50 qualified coaches and over 140 registered referees.
Mu said, "We are gradually supplying one professional soccer teacher for each school where the sport is played. "With support from government institutions in Jingchuan and Pingliang, the Jingchuan Football Association organized Pingliang's first "super league" in 2019, which comprised eight teams. The following year, 12 teams competed in this league.
Wang, the association's president, said, "To promote the overall development of soccer in Jingchuan and Pingliang, we chose different areas in which to play the game every weekend."
He said that since it was established in 2017, the association has promoted training for young players.
"We start by cultivating children's interest — mainly helping them with basic soccer skills, as well as teaching them fundamental tactical knowledge about the game," Wang said.
Gansu, which has no top teams or star players, is rarely mentioned in the world of soccer, but the province made headlines in 2003, when local club Gansu Tianma signed former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne.
With support from education, sports and other departments, conditions for soccer in Gansu have gradually improved in recent years.
In Lanzhou, the provincial capital, numerous primary and secondary schools conduct regular training sessions and compete in matches.
At Zhonglianchuan Primary School, located at an altitude of 2,300 meters in Yuzhong county, dozens of potential players have been selected by professional training organizations, and schools and clubs in China and overseas.
Zhang Xin, secretary-general of the Gansu Football Association, said: "Soccer is not a sport solely for those living in developed areas with good economic conditions. It is a mass sport with wide participation among people living in urban and rural areas."
However, due to a lack of funds, venues, full-time coaches and teachers, as well as other problems, the development of soccer in remote areas of western China was restricted for a long time, he said.
Zhang added that officials in Gansu are calling for a series of soccer activities to be staged in the province's vast rural areas. Soccer associations and sports departments in counties and county-level cities are being encouraged to conduct these activities.
The province aims to help more villagers, especially young people, play soccer to strengthen the sport's development.