I recently spent 15 days filming a documentary in Yan’an, Shaanxi province, climbing ancient cliff-side stairs otherwise deemed too dangerous for public access, filming in freezing temperatures and staging hourslong interviews with people whose thick local accents I couldn’t understand.
It was a tough but worthwhile journey.
But the segment I looked forward to least is one many people would most-playing soccer with middle schoolers.
First, I hate cardio.
Second, I hadn’t played since I was about 9 and wasn’t sure I even remembered all the rules.
Third, I was concerned that, as a big, fumbling-footed galoot, I might accidentally injure one of the cute kids.
And, well, I’d just never been interested in the game. Nothing against it-just not my thing.
Also, my dress shoes were too large, and one flew off when I kicked a goal during warm-up.
But the film shoot was happening, no matter what.
Turns out, the coach and I wear the same size shoe, so he lent me his shoes so I could perform the footwork without launching my footwear into some kid’s face.
As I ran onto the field, I couldn’t wait for it to be over with.
But almost instantly, I forgot about my trepidations, about the cameras, about the crowd-about everything except the ball.
And, to my shock, I was actually able to dribble and block decently, although not as well as the children. But I absolutely missed a penalty shot. It wasn’t even close, to the tremendous amusement of the kids-and myself.
I had fun!
What I’d expected to rank among the least enjoyable activities of filming turned out to be one of my favorites. And it made me rethink my attitude toward soccer.
Zhidan, the rural county of about 160,000 residents in which I played, has become celebrated nationwide for promoting soccer culture and talent.
Roughly 60 people played in the county in 2003, and about half were adults.
Today, all of its more than 20 primary and middle schools have soccer programs. Nearly a third, or about 6,000 students, play on 32 artificial-turf pitches. Around 250 have gone on to pro clubs or university teams.
I spent the rest of the afternoon talking with a teenage girl who told me that she’d become lonely, withdrawn and despondent after her parents divorced. And since her mother works until late, she raises herself in the cave they call home.
Xiao Bai says soccer helped her gain confidence, make friends and find a new sense of happiness overall.
She scored three goals the day I met her.
Her eyes told her story better than her words.
I’d frankly only thought of such benefits of the game abstractly until talking with her, face-to-face.
Beyond Zhidan, China has in recent years made great efforts to advance soccer, including in rural areas, to close the gap with “global powerhouses” in the sport, improve health and even boost tourism.
Still, China’s men’s soccer team only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, and seems unlikely to make the 2022 finals in Qatar. The team also didn’t qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
And that’s despite the fact that, in 2004, FIFA recognized the ancient martial game of cuju that originated in Zibo, Shandong province, as the origin of contemporary soccer.
New national measures call for establishing soccer facilities in all urban communities by 2035 and enhancing youth training everywhere.
I’d always agreed with the value of China’s campaign to advance soccer, even though I didn’t personally care for the game.
But after actually playing in Zhidan and engaging with the kids there, I have a newfound appreciation of this goal, in every sense, and my own interest in the sport.