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Shaolin Soccer the movie gets real in China

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 kung fu, 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 program, centered 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 practiced.

Shaolin monks show off their football skills during a demonstration game in Dengfeng, central China's Henan province. China's celebrated Shaolin Temple is training young kung fu disciples to play football in the far-off hope of reversing the flagging fortunes of the national team, state media reported. AFP
"We are responding to the country's call," said Sun Dawei, a crew-cut 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 favored 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."

Awesome movie

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 program 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 program practices for several hours every day and the school has signed a deal with a British firm to import coaches.

Work in progress

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."

Topics: China , Shaolin Soccer
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