Small county in NW China scores big with soccer

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Photo shows players of Liuba Middle School in a game of the first China Youth Football League. (Photo from People's Daily)
Photo shows players of Liuba Middle School in a game of the first China Youth Football League. (Photo from People's Daily)

By Li Yang, Guo Xueyan

Soccer has brought drastic changes to Liuba, a small county deep in the Qinling Mountains in northwest China’s Shaanxi province with a population of less than 50,000.

It broadens the horizons for children in the mountainous county and gives them a stage to show their talent. Besides, it is also driving the development of the county’s sports industry.
Thirteen years ago, Liuba was still a national-level impoverished county. It was scarcely populated and suffered from a poor educational foundation.

Inspired by an investigation trip to Shanghai, Chen Jun, then principal of Liuba Middle School, came up with a plan to improve students’ all-round development by making football a part of school education.

Under his proposal, a “soccer pitch” was encircled with mud on the school’s sports field, and two bricks were placed on each of the baselines as a “goal.” Math teacher Zhang Suyang, who once played for the junior soccer team of Shaanxi Province, served as the coach. The school bought 200 jerseys and 200 soccer balls and distributed them to students who wanted to play.

A few semesters later, no decline in academic performance was observed among students who played football. Some of them were even admitted to universities. Because of this, Chen’s idea received wide support.

Since 2014, Liuba Middle School has set up classes with a specialty in soccer and built a soccer team for each grade. Besides, it provided reasonable training schedules for the students.

Students participate in soccer training for two hours per day after school, and if there are students going out of town for soccer games, they would be accompanied by teachers who helped them make up the classes they missed.

With soccer, children in Liuba county envision a brighter future. Some students in the county have joined national junior teams over the past few years, and over 50 have been admitted to universities because of their specialty in the sport. Nearly 300 have obtained certificates for first-class and second-class athletes. Besides, the county now has 10 county-level soccer teams and 16 school teams.

As a national-level pilot county for youth soccer, Liuba has won a number of provincial student championships and tournaments. Liuba Middle School recently became the first county-level school to have made it into the national final of the U15 tournaments of the China Youth Football League.

The sound development of campus soccer encouraged Liuba county to develop the soccer industry. In 2016, it established a soccer youth training base in Yingpan village.

“The base is located at an altitude of 1,600 meters and comes with a forest coverage of over 90 percent and an average temperature of less than 20 degrees Celsius in summer, which offers a sound environment for altitude training,” said Chen.

The base has six training pitches and a standard pitch. With eight dormitory buildings and two cafeterias, it can accommodate 600 people. The training base received over 200 football teams between 2018 and 2021 and hosted more than 30 municipal and provincial games. Besides, it was visited by more than 50,000 tourists. China’s national women’s football team trained in Yingpan in August 2021 and sent a thank-you letter to the village after winning the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

So far, the training base has signed cooperation agreements with 28 local agritainment facilities. Over the past two years, the village, which has 300 villagers, has created nearly 100 jobs of cleaning and pitch maintenance. According to statistics, the soccer industry can generate annual revenue of nearly 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) for the county.

“Nearly 1/3 of the villagers in the remote village were impoverished ten years ago,” recalled Ma Jun, a poverty alleviation official in Yingpan.

Today, the village has built a well-equipped ski resort and a bike lane that stretches over 10 kilometers, Ma noted, adding that a school with a specialty in soccer and a rehabilitation center are under way, and a soccer theme park is about to be commenced.

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