Feature: Ten years on, football dream keeps flourishing on Loess Plateau

By Yao Youming, Zheng Xin and Zhao Yingbo (Xinhua) 13:33, March 29, 2024

XI'AN, March 29 (Xinhua) -- A decade has flown by, yet in Zhidan County, nestled in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, the pursuit of football dreams marches on undeterred.

In Zhidan, a county of over 160,000 residents, football has flourished, boasting over 6,000 players and more than 30 modern artificial turf pitches across 25 schools.

Back in 2014, the county sent 20 youngsters to Germany for football training, culminating in a friendly match with their peers in Berlin.

Ding Changbao, head of the local football association, led that pioneering group. Since that landmark trip, Ding and his team have guided over 200 teenagers, transforming their lives through the beautiful game.

"In the next decade, I will try my best to keep chasing my dream of establishing a football club as great as Real Madrid on the Loess Plateau," said 45-year-old Ding.


Recalling their trip to Germany in March 2014, Ding said, "That was the first time my players went aboard. We all knew that Germany is a powerhouse in the football world, so everyone in my team cherished that chance."

For Zhou Xu, now a Chang'an University student, those days in Germany are etched in his memory.

"One day, when I practiced on the stairs of a stadium, a German coach told me that one German international had practiced at the exact same point when he was a kid. Although I didn't know many football stars at that time, I trained harder to become an outstanding footballer in the future," Zhou recalled.

Zhou's teammate Yao Jie was very impressed while watching Wolfsburg's first team training session.

"They had amazing skills and fantastic tactics. When we returned to our hometown, we all had the determination to become good footballers and bring Zhidan more trophies and glories," Yao said.

This transformative experience abroad reshaped Ding's vision. Rather than solely focusing on grooming professional players, he sought to embed football into the lifestyle of Zhidan's youth.

"I want to improve the comprehensive qualities of my players," he declared.


The disappointing exit of China from the 2002 FIFA World Cup group stage, without winning a single match, dealt a blow to Ding and made him realize that it was a long way to go for China to be among the powerhouses.

Althoug football has been a popular sport in China, Zhidan barely had 60 players when Ding's club was founded in 2003. He then established the Zhidan Football Association in 2007 in a bid to foster a football culture.

Ding's relentless pursuit led to football's introduction in schools, and by 2010, Zhidan was selected for a national youth football pilot program. The county government's subsequent annual funding of three million yuan (about 450,000 U.S. dollars) to the football association marked a new era of accessible football training for Zhidan's youth.

"Now we play football every day, and participate in the county's campus football league on weekends. Even for my classmates who are not selected in the school team, they can play football 45 minutes a week, under the guidance of professional coaches," said eight-year-old Yang Shuhan from Zhidan Red Army Primary School.

Since claiming its first provincial tournament trophy in 2015, Zhidan's teams have amassed 47 titles across various competitions and levels.


2023 saw the establishment of Zhidan's youth football school, with former Chinese international Wang Tao at the helm. "I will share my experience with the young guys, helping them chase their dreams of becoming professional players, or enrolling in universities," Wang expressed.

In addition to his role at the school, Wang dedicates his weekends to coaching two U14 teams in Zhidan.

"Zhidan team won the women's football gold at the 2022 Shaanxi Provincial Games. I will help my players improve their skills and try to defend our title in the 2026 Games," Wang noted.

Looking ahead, Ding is committed to further nurturing the foundation of grassroots football. "We will try to build a youth training center, as well as a professional field with natural grass turf," he said.

As Ding continues to champion football within educational settings, he also harbors ambitions of elevating the game to a professional level.

"I'm looking forward to setting up a professional football team in Zhidan, even though it is in the third tier in China," he declared. Enditem

(Wang Jialin and Lin Shenggai also contributed to the story.)

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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