Flying kicks

Young footballers hone skills at kung-fu academy

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Audacious efforts have been made over the years to turn China into a world football power. One such attempt: the China Jianlibao Youth Football Team was formed two decades ago this month.

The plan was to develop an expensive training programme sponsored by the Shenzhen-based power drink maker Jianlibao. A group of 22 teenagers, aged 15 to 16, were picked after vigorous trials nationwide. They were then sent to a boot camp in Brazil in 1992 for five years. By training and competing in Brazil, it was hoped that the youngsters would live and breathe the game in Brazilian style, coming back as the Chinese Selecao.

The programme yielded reasonable results. Some of the Jianlibao youth team have formed the core of the Chinese national football team since 1997. Li Tie and Li Weifeng, two standout prospects, went on to play for English Premiership club Everton for a short spell too.

The Jianlibao team is still widely regarded as the most successful – and the most respected – academy in Chinese football’s fairly derisible history.

More than 20 years on, another audacious academy is being attempted. But this time, organisers are drawing on an athletic heritage closer to home, namely kung-fu.

According to the Jiefang Daily, Henan-based developer Central China Real Estate has built a football school that trains young footballers using Chinese martial arts. Monks from the internationally famous Shaolin Temple are reportedly among the coaches. The academy has been up-and-running for a couple of years and the newspaper reports it now has 500 trainees. All of them were picked from a group of 15,000 youngsters who have attended kung-fu classes.

The developer claims to be planning to invest a further Rmb2 billion ($326 million) for new facilities that could house as many as 8,000 disciples. General education, football and martial arts will amount to a third each of the curriculum and ensure students have a “balanced life”.

Shi Yanlu, a self-proclaimed kung-fu monk from Shaolin (and also the academy’s chief instructor) told Jiefang Daily that the school is “still experimental”. But Shi is convinced that many combat skills from Shaolin kung-fu are applicable on the football field (for demonstrable evidence, see above photo).

This was precisely the conceit at the heart of Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow’s 2001 blockbuster Shaolin Soccer. In the movie ‘Shaolin Mighty Steel Leg’ is powerful enough to smash a ball through a concrete wall. Even a 10-man wall stands little chance against a free kick taken by a kungfu-trained footballer.

WiC will put aside whether coaching from monks is really the answer to China’s footballing misery. Perhaps there is some potential. After all, there has been crossover between football and the world of martial arts before – perhaps the Manchester United legend Eric Cantona could visit Shaolin to give a little instruction in kung-fu kicking? But it also seems that the new academy isn’t even sanctioned by the Shaolin monks themselves. The Shaolin Temple, run by the controversial abbot Shi Yongxin, has denied any involvement with the academy which is only 10 kilometres from its own base for meditation. Instead he attacked it in a statement to the Guangzhou Daily as one of many attempts to “swindle money, disturb social trust and seriously damage the Shaolin Temple’s reputation”. As Shi put it: “The football project is merely a dog-meat seller luring customers with a lamb’s head.”

Not surprisingly the news has caused much mirth throughout China. “Shaolin football? Our football is already being destroyed. Now the turn of kung-fu?” the Guangming Daily wrote mockingly.

On a more serious note, Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily said it could be a good idea to build up young footballer’s physiques with kung-fu training. However, the newspaper added that the first objective in improving Chinese football is to stamp out corruption. Without that, the Chinese team will never be as internationally competitive as its fans would like.

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