Feature: A former La Liga champion aims to revitalize football in Xinjiang

By Sun Zhe (Xinhua) 16:26, March 25, 2024

URUMQI, March 25 (Xinhua) -- In the remotest region from the ocean, Fernando Sanchez Cipitria, who hails from the Mediterranean coast, finds his calling.

Different from the mild comfort of his homeland, Spain, northwestern China's Xinjiang welcomes with a lingering chill in March. Amidst the thawing landscape, Fernando immersed himself in intense preparations. The Xinjiang Silk Road Eagle football club, coached by him and established just over a month ago, aims to rise through the ranks in this year's China's lowest-tier football league and fill the void in professional football in this region anew.

While it may be hard for outsiders to link the portly figure with the once formidable forward, the 52-year-old did emerge from Real Madrid's youth training. He played for various La Liga teams, aiding Deportivo La Coruna to clinch their first La Liga title at the beginning of the 21st century.

Fernando's connection with the multi-ethnic region Xinjiang has deep roots.

Filled with courage and dedication on the field, Fernando retired prematurely due to a severe knee injury in his thirties. Mentored by luminaries like Rafael Benitez and Luis Aragones, he transitioned into coaching. In 2012, he embarked on a long-term stint as the director of youth training at the Evergrande Football School in south China's Guangdong. Unexpectedly, it was among a group of Xinjiang children at the school where he saw echoes of his past self.

"They resemble European players a lot. They're often brimming with determination and confidence, hungry for victory," he later remarked. "There are vast deserts and glaciers, and sometimes you have to traverse villages to scout players, but the talent of these kids is astonishing, they need a platform to fight for their dreams."

In 2019, despite never coaching a professional team, Fernando took the reins of China's second-tier club Xinjiang Tianshan Leopards FC, leading the financially modest club to outperform expectations.

Off the field, he footed the bill for team meals and generously donated to sick fans. Despite the rarity of Spaniards working in Xinjiang, he has earned trust and respect here, affectionately known as "Old Fei."

"As a coach, the best times of my life have been in Xinjiang. I've bonded with everyone, faced challenges together, and cheered for victories," he said.

The enduring bond between Old Fei and Xinjiang saw a renewed mutual journey.

The Xinjiang Silk Road Eagle, the region's first membership-based football club, was founded on February 4. Despite several Chinese clubs having extended offers to him, Fernando promptly accepted the invitation from Xinjiang.

"This time it's more challenging because we're starting from the lowest level of amateur leagues," he said. "But for me, it's also filled with hope and motivation."

Upon his landing in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, enthusiastic fans gathered spontaneously at the airport to welcome him, who was surprised as he didn't expect such warmth. As they went back to the hotel, Fernando and his assistant David were thrilled, occasionally glimpsing familiar sights along the road.

"It's still as warm as ever, with warm-hearted people, diverse cuisines, and magnificent scenery of the Tianshan Mountains," he said.

Compared to over three years ago, time has left its marks on him. His hair has turned white, and plagued by knee injuries during his playing days, the now unsteady gait requires frequent rests.

However, his fighting spirit only grew stronger. He repeatedly emphasized that his return is not a fleeting whim but part of a long-term plan to strengthen football foundations along with the club.

While his former star pupils shine in the Chinese Super League (CSL), Fernando has to start from scratch. Without undergoing systematic training, the new team lacks physical reserves. Fernando and his coaching staff conducted trials for dozens of players in a short period, laying the groundwork for the new squad.

"Everything is fast-paced, with high demands on everyone, but that's precisely the beauty of football," said an optimistic Fernando. "Now we're here, fully prepared for the upcoming matches."

Seeing so much support from fans reaffirmed his sense of responsibility.

"Football is what I'm best at in my life. Perhaps one day in the future, when I leave, I hope to have established a mature football training system for Xinjiang," he said.

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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