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Village soccer league braces for new season, eyes overseas reach

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily| Updated: 2024-01-05 Print


Competitions for amateur athletes, such as soccer's 'Cun Chao' league (pictured), helped boost the development of the sports industry in rural areas across China during 2023. Luo Jinglai / For China Daily

With more teams involved and greater enthusiasm expected, China's village soccer league will kick off an intriguing new season as the burgeoning sports scene keeps benefiting rural vitalization.

Building on its sensational success in 2023, the Village Super League, or cun chao, in Rongjiang county, Southwest China's Guizhou province, will have a bigger and better season that will involve more participants, promote fitness and boost local tourism across more areas, according to organizers.

The amateur competition, with players from all walks of life, including farmers, vendors and drivers, will start its 2024 campaign's preliminary stage on Saturday with 62 teams, up from 20 last year. The teams, to be placed into 10 groups, will compete in a total of 162 round-robin games before each group's top two teams advance into the knockout stage, which will be held from March to May, the organizing committee announced on Wednesday.

"The 2024 tournament, for the first time, has participants representing almost all villages of the county. The involvement of new teams will, for sure, bring new dynamics this year," said Lai Hongjing from the organizing committee, who is also a physical education teacher at Rongjiang No 1 Middle School.

Dong Yongheng, who represents the runner-up team from Zhongcheng village and was the tournament's top scorer in the 2023 season, said he expects nothing but fiercer and more fun competitions in the upcoming season.

"New teams and new opponents will bring more suspense that will take greater depth and commitment from us to stay competitive. I am just so excited about the new campaign," said the 34-year-old player, who owns a snack bar in Rongjiang.

All the players, coaches and team staff members involved in the tournament are from villages in the county. Their common interest in soccer, and sports in general, has helped them shine on the playground and draw the national spotlight.

Thanks to its unique blend of grassroots sports participation, strong ethnic culture and local flavor, the tournament has attracted phenomenal attention at home and abroad since last year, drawing an increasing number of visitors, who have contributed hugely to local tourism and related businesses.

Xu Bo, head of Rongjiang county, said that livestreaming of the tournament's 2023 season garnered more than 600 million views on multiple platforms, while the county received over 5.19 million visits between May and October, raking in over 5.98 billion yuan ($839 million) in tourism revenue.

"The down-to-earth nature of the tournament is its biggest advantage, which has helped it generate a strong appeal among locals," Xu said during a China Central Television program last month.

A 94-year-old woman donating 50 yuan for her village team to buy drinks, as the tournament's oldest "sponsor", and a primary school student yelling instructions to his father's team from the sidelines, as the youngest "coach", speak volumes about the event's strong connection with locals, Xu said.

Zeng Hongtao, a professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology's School of Physical Education, said that cultural diversity is also instrumental in drawing huge attention to the village tournament.

"It was organized as a sporting event, but has evolved way beyond sports," Zeng said, adding that the tournament has become a demonstration of China's rich ethnic culture and regional traditions. "So it caters to not just sports fans from the province, but also visitors and tourists from across the country."

During each of the pregame ceremonies and halftime breaks, spectators enjoy folk songs and dances performed by cheerleaders wearing ethnic costumes. Local specialties, such as pork, beef, lamb and cured fish, constitute the prize awarded to the winning team, which helps promote the region's culinary culture.

Global cooperation

In addition to its growing popularity at home, the village league has drawn attention from overseas soccer stars and organizations.

During the 2023 China International Fair for Trade in Services in September in Beijing, the village league and the English Premier League forged a strategic cooperation agreement to promote soccer at the grassroots level, while integrating cultural exchanges.

On Dec 12, the Premier Skills project was launched in Rongjiang, with 44 local coaches trained at a four-day educational program tailored by pros from the English Premier League.

In an interview with Xinhua News Agency, Hu Zhaoheng, the English Premier League's head of media sales and content partnerships for China, said, "I hope there will be more soccer communication at the community level between China and the United Kingdom in the future."

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