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Strong performance of Xinjiang players turns the region into a land of hope for China's soccer scene
Xinjiang soccer players have a place at the hearts of the nation
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2022-06-08  ·   Source: NO.23 JUNE 9, 2022
Nurmemet Sherep (right) instructs children in a primary school in Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on November 15, 2021 (XINHUA)

At 3 a.m. on May 29, Nurmuhemmed Qimbulak appeared on live-streaming platform VZAN, commentating on the 2022 Union of European Football Association Champions League Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in the Uygur language. It was another sleepless night for this 36-year-old commentator during soccer season, which runs from August to next May in Europe.

His broadcast received millions of views on the platform, which was a large number given the total Uygur population in China stands at just over 12 million. A former sports journalist at Xinjiang TV Station (XJTV) in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, he has become a sports influencer with a penchant for soccer in the region.

"The passion for soccer runs through my veins," Nurmuhemmed told Beijing Review. "It's also in the blood of many people in Xinjiang, regardless of gender and age."

A lifelong infatuation

"When I was young, soccer was the most favorite sport of many children in Xinjiang," he said. "We didn't have many sports facilities, except for a spacious field. Soccer was the one sport we all had easy access to—all we needed was a football."

An extroverted person, playing soccer was a good way for him to team up with his buddies and express himself. "The love for soccer is highly infectious," he said, recalling a day during the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France when his mother woke him up at midnight to watch the game. "My mom said cheerfully: time for a soccer match!"

It was this kind of atmosphere that kindled his passion for soccer, and eventually led him into related professions, first as a TV sports journalist, then as a soccer commentator. Today, he runs several sports-related accounts on different Chinese social media platforms. His account on Douyin, China's TikTok, has thus far amassed over 120,000 followers even though most of the videos are in the Uygur language.

He still plays soccer twice a week and considers that one of the most enjoyable things in life. "The age of our team's players ranges from 20 to 50," he said. "Most of us have been playing together for more than 10 years. Age has never been an obstacle."

And this passion truly has had a trickle-down effect. His two sons, aged 10 and 9, are also fans of the sport and both joined their primary school's football club. "When I was commentating on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil on XJTV, they were only 3 and 2; they saw me on television and were jumping up and down with excitement," he said. "My wife filmed their reaction and it's still a very sweet family memory."

Today, children living in Xinjiang's bigger cities have more options when it comes to choosing a sport. More basketball venues have been built, for example, but the passion for soccer hasn't waned. "It's common to see boys play soccer anywhere they can, like the parking lots downtown," Nurmuhemmed said.

The amateur turned pro

In remote places like Kashgar in southwest Xinjiang, soccer has long been the go-to sport. The story of 22-year-old Nurmemet Sherep is an iconic one showing how one young soccer aficionado from a remote village in this prefecture grew up to become a professional player.

Born in a village in Shufu County, Kashgar Prefecture, Nurmemet cherishes a love for soccer that has prevailed over all the difficulties he has encountered. As a fourth grader in primary school, he joined the school's soccer team and began to chase his sporting dream.

Though a kid from a family deep in debt, he was aiming high. He couldn't even afford a football. But he found a busted one in the village, and had it stitched back together and the leaks plugged with glue. He also made use of everything he could find to create his own training grounds: A village cornfield served as his pitch, a hole in the wall of an empty silo became his goal, and even the wheels from an abandoned donkey cart were put to good use as exercise equipment.

In November 2019, Nurmemet created an account on Douyin, uploading videos of his daily training in the cornfield.

Nurmuhemmed saw the videos in early 2020 and contacted him for an interview. In May 2020, the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard Football Club, a professional football club in Xinjiang, also noticed him, inviting him to Urumqi for a tryout.

That first tryout didn't result in his immediate recruitment as a player. The coach spotted a few rough edges in his technique and performance, and gave him some advice to train more effectively. After five months of hard work, he went to Urumqi for a second tryout and scored a contract with the club. Soon after, in October, he scored a goal for his team in a high-profile soccer match.

His career path from bumpy cropland to grass pitch has made him an online sensation. In his Douyin videos, followed by over 1.24 million people, Nurmemet speaks not-so-fluent standard Chinese and expresses his optimism about the future of China's soccer scene.

"It's the typical image of this generation of Xinjiang's professional soccer players," Nurmuhemmed explained. "They started in harsh training conditions, had no access to professional training, and some even couldn't speak standard Chinese. But they never gave up and always remained optimistic."

The rise of Xinjiang soccer players has become a phenomenon in China in recent years. At the 2021 National Games of China, commonly known as Shaanxi 2021, the Xinjiang U20 men's team beat all its opponents, dribbling their way into the finals, and staging the strongest performance ever for the Xinjiang team. Some Xinjiang players have gone on to become key players on the clubs of other provinces and regions.

More measures have also been launched in Xinjiang to enhance the education and training of young players. A growing number of professional coaches also went to this land of soccer passion, providing more advanced training for the players.

Such training will start from a very young age. In March, the regional sports bureau of Xinjiang announced the establishment of 1,000 kindergartens prioritizing soccer education this year. All these kindergartens will feature soccer training and tailored educational programs supported by the Ministry of Education.

It is the first large-scale effort to prioritize soccer in Xinjiang kindergartens, aiming to improve children's health, develop young talent and spread soccer culture.

"Many people now believe the future of Chinese soccer might be in Xinjiang and I don't think this is an exaggeration," Nurmuhemmed added. "With all the encouraging policies, I believe Xinjiang's football will make great progress in the future."

(Print Edition Title: Passion on the Pitch)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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