Shaolin kung fu seeks to strike a blow for Chinese football

The 'Shaolin soccer training base' – set up last year near the home of China’s fighting monks – has ambitions to use traditional martial arts techniques to produce elite football players for Team Dragon. The world’s most populous country ranks 84th according to Fifa.
Students practising wushu at the Tagou martial arts school in Dengfeng. China is investing hugely in football training and has vowed to have 50 million school-age players by 2020, as the ruling Communist party eyes "football superpower" status by 2050. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP
Students practising wushu at the Tagou martial arts school in Dengfeng. China is investing hugely in football training and has vowed to have 50 million school-age players by 2020, as the ruling Communist party eyes "football superpower" status by 2050. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

DENGFENG, CHINA // The young martial arts pupils cartwheeled across a pitch, before football coach Sun Yawei ordered one to deliver him a kung fu kick to the stomach.

“You see I avoid the kick like this,” Sun said, dodging out of harm’s way before grabbing his young charge’s leg and throwing him to the turf.

As tackling and defensive techniques, both would be short cuts to a red card.

But the Shaolin football training base — set up last year near the home of China’s fighting monks — has ambitions to use traditional martial arts techniques to produce elite football players for Team Dragon.

China’s national team is struggling: the world’s most populous country ranks a lowly 84th according to Fifa and the latest setback to its fading hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was a 0-0 home draw this week with Qatar.

But China is investing hugely in football training and has vowed to have 50 million school-age players by 2020, as the ruling Communist party eyes “football superpower” status by 2050.

The vast Tagou martial arts school has 35,000 fee-paying boarders, who live in spartan conditions and are put through a rigorous training regime.

Some 1,500 of its students, both male and female, have signed up for its new football programme centred on a pristine green Astroturf football pitch where dozens of children play simultaneous five-a-side-games.

“We are responding to the country’s call,” said Sun, a former martial arts champion who took a football coach training course last year.

“What we want to do ... is combine Shaolin martial arts with football and create an original concept,” he added.

Sun’s class of 12-year-olds wore red jackets emblazoned “Shaolin” and the canvas-style shoes favoured by practitioners of Chinese martial arts, known as wushu.

They cartwheeled from one side of the pitch to another, before assembling in formation and running through tightly choreographed routines of high kicks and punches.

“With a foundation in wushu, their bodily flexibility and force is a great help when they are playing football,” said Sun. “Their jumping ability is helpful.”

The training base has drawn comparisons with the hit 2001 Hong Kong film Shaolin Soccer, which is about a ragtag band of out-of-shape martial artists who defy the odds to storm to victory in a football tournament.

The film’s heroes play in yellow monks’ robes, flying through the air, carrying out dazzling dives and overhead kicks of tornado-like power and winning one game 40-0.

“The flying ... and those sort of awesome things I can’t do,” admitted 12-year-old winger Sun Linyuan.

But he said: “In the future I will be able to do spinning kicks and bicycle kicks. Then I’ll be a better footballer.”

Despite their years of kung fu training, the students’ football skills were still a work in progress, school staff admitted.

“You’re just running wherever the ball is! Do you think that’s OK?” an exasperated Sun asked his students in a half-time huddle. “Should you be marking people or not?”

“Yes!” the students all affirmed at once.

Long a football fan, Sun admitted there was a “vast” difference between the Beautiful Game and Shaolin kung fu.

Still, he said, “We are the number one school for martial arts. So we have the confidence that in another area we can also be among the nation’s best.”

* Agence France-Presse

Published: November 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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