Xinjiang scores on the national stage at last

By Sun Xiaochen in Shenyang and Cui Jia in Urumqi ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-09-17 08:48:51

Xinjiang scores on the national stage at last

Akdan Ali (center), a female player in the No 5 primary school team in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, helps her teammates during a training session. [Photo by Yao Tong / for China Daily]

The region faces challenges in developing soccer, report Sun Xiaochen in Shenyang and Cui Jia in Urumqi.

When Erjet, the goalkeeper for the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region's Under-20 soccer team, buried his face in the grass and wept, the crowd in Shenyang Tiexi Stadium gave him an ovation fit for a hero.

Chants of "Xinjiang urra", or "Going forward, Xinjiang", in the Uygur language echoed around the 30,000-seat stadium as hundreds of Xinjiang fans shouted and clapped to cheer their players after the team lost its first-ever semifinal in the National Games in a penalty shootout.

The 6-5 defeat to hosts Liaoning was the region's best result in the competition, as it ended the tournament ranked fourth out of eight teams.

Xinjiang scores on the national stage at last

Xinjiang fans cheer their team at the Shenyang Tiexi Stadium after it lost its first-ever National Games semifinal. [Photo by Cui Meng / China Daily]

Despite the loss, Erjet, a member of the Kazak ethnic group, and his teammates left the stadium with their heads held high. Simply making it to the National Games was a victory for Xinjiang soccer, long out of the national spotlight.

"We feel so blessed to be part of the history of Xinjiang soccer," said the 20-year-old. "We are so proud to have motivated and inspired young players back home."

Although it enjoys huge popularity at the grassroots level, the lack of a local club in the top-tier professional league has seen Xinjiang soccer struggle to enter the mainstream of modern professionalism.

The lack of youth participation, which hampers the game's development in China's other inland provinces, has never been an issue in Xinjiang, where children are passionate about soccer and choose the game as their first and probably sole extracurricular sporting activity, according to Parhat, Xinjiang's head coach.

"Soccer enjoys unparalleled popularity in Xinjiang but in terms of its professional development, we still lag far behind," said the 39-year-old, who in 2005 steered the region to the National Games for the first time, when the team finished last in the 12-squad tournament.

Parhat believes the much-improved result this time round could motivate the governing body in Xinjiang to push for the foundation of professional local clubs to feed soccer fever at the grassroots level.

"Establishing a club is now the most urgent requirement for the future of soccer in Xinjiang because we need a platform to further develop our young talent."

Lacking access to the Chinese Super League, the country's top competition, most of the Xinjiang players retired after the four-year National Games campaign, although a few managed to earn contracts with clubs in other regions.

Erjet said he won't allow his soccer dream to die because he's aware of the responsibility on his shoulders.

"At least the next generation will have a target (playing at the professional level) to inspire them to keep working hard," said Erjet, who was signed by the second-tier inland club FC Henan Jianye after the National Games.

Participation is seen as key to success

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