Dengfeng, China | AFP |
The young martial arts pupils cartwheeled across a pitch, before football coach Sun Dawei 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 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.
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 — which has only around 300,000 citizens.
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, a few miles from the cradle of Chinese kungfu, the Shaolin Temple in Henan province, 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 soccer programme, centred on a pristine green Astroturf football pitch where dozens of children play simultaneous five-a-side-games.
A concrete viewing stand is under construction to accommodate future spectators, with cement mixers churning and a crane swinging girders above the children as they practised.
“We are responding to the country’s call,” said Sun, a crewcutted former martial arts champion who took a soccer 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,” 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 added: “In the future I will be able to do spinning kicks and bicycle kicks. Then I’ll be a better footballer.”
When the soccer programme opened a year ago the province’s top sport official Zhang Wenshan addressed a ceremony which saw thousands of students carry out a tightly choreographed martial arts routine.
“We have carried out deep research into using our province’s advantage in traditional martial arts to develop youth football,” he said.
A provincial document vows to “build shaolin soccer into a brand”, and the school has given itself five years to become one of the province’s top three youth teams.
Each child who signs up for the soccer programme practises for several hours every day and the school has signed a deal with a British firm to import coaches.
Sun’s group split into two teams, with captains assigning positions. One striker in a number 10 jersey backflipped his way onto the pitch.
Despite their years of kung fu training, the students’ football skills were still a work in progress, school staff admitted, with sloppy defending, shaky shooting and poor ball control all in evidence.
“You’re just running wherever the ball is! Do you think that’s ok?” an exasperated Sun told 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 kungfu.
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.”