By Xinhua writer Wu Guangyu
CHENGDU, Aug. 18 (Xinhua) — Early in the morning, 12-year-old Yi ethnic boy Azuo Wule was awakened by the first rays of sunshine peeking through the dormitory door of Wanda Charity School in Zhaojue County, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China’s Sichuan Province.
Putting on his uniform and football boots, the boy was excited and primed for the new day’s training.
Javier Moros Barrera, a UEFA A Level coach from Zaragoza, Spain, has been training Wule and 14 other boys on the county’s best football pitch since July 13. The team of Zhaojue Real Madrid is named after the European giants, and their training program is supported by the Real Madrid Foundation and Liangshan Nimu Sports.
“I never dreamed I could have a coach like him.” said Wule, wearing a shy smile.
Wule found a new home at the school. His mother had left home after divorcing his father due to domestic violence, and then his father died eight years ago.
He then grew up with his grandmother, who passed away last year after having suffered with AIDS for several years.
Wule is fortunate not to have fallen victim to the disease, as the Liangshan area was badly hit by drug-related issues in the late 20th century, with a high number of people becoming infected with HIV.
For many years, football had been almost the only source of joy in his life. Now, through a poverty-relief related football program, the sport lights up his future.
Qubi Shigu, Wule’s first football coach and the head of Wawu Primary School, has made football a special course for the past 17 years. The school is located on the top of a 2,700 meter-tall mountain, and he has been training the children in a “wild” way.
Thanks to football, Wule and his classmates got the chance to see the outside world. In the summer of 2018, they played friendly matches in Nanjing and an exhibition match in the Chinese Super League.
Not only a good football player, Wule was also a good student, and was admitted by Wanda Charity School.
Javier Moros Barrera, the 30-year-old coach, is the first overseas face many children had encountered in Zhaojue. He started playing football at the age of four and started coaching at 16. After graduating from college, he was offered a job by the Real Madrid Foundation that brought him to China.
“The original plan was six months, but I’ve been here for six years.” said Barrera. “I used to work in Shenzhen and Guiyang, which are very modern and comfortable.”
However, coaching in the remote town of Zhaojue is a different story.
“I never thought there were places like this in China.” He said. “In my impression, the country is full of skyscrapers and people are living a very prosperous life.”
Zhaojue County, where he is now based, is located in the heart of one of 14 poverty-stricken areas in China. There are still more than 30,000 people with an average annual income under 4,200 yuan (about 605 U.S. dollars).
Barrera and his workmate Yin Jianlin live in a rented apartment in an old neighborhood near the football pitch and eat their meals in small restaurants.
Besides noodles and stir-fried dishes, they are now used to the local “brazier barbecue”. At weekends, they would have beers with local Yi ethnic friends.
The team trains for four hours a day. Barrera is also required to report daily to Rafa Fernandez, the training director based in Xichang, the prefecture’s capital city, and discuss training plans with him.
Barrera told Xinhua that the Real Madrid Foundation’s project in Zhaojue would last for three years. His aim is to train the youngsters to “play with their heads”.
“In the first 15 minutes of every day’s training, I’m often so frustrated that in one minute they seemed to know the dos and don’ts, and the next minute they forget. The kids didn’t have real professional training in the past, and they need more time,” he said.
Although there is still a long way to go to turn the young players into a professional team, Barrera is moved by the children’s hard work and their respect for teachers. “They barely complain about being tired. The children from Wawu Primary School are especially strong.”
Although Barrera is a strict coach on field, the boys like to surround him and act up during their break. Today, the boys like to say “hello”, “thank you” and “see you tomorrow” in Spanish. At the end of each day’s training, together they would shout “Hala Madrid!”
12-year-old Tubi Bubu is a small, clever boy with an easy-going nature. Playing as the team’s midfielder, he has good ball control and can build up an attack. 11-year-old full-back Giniu Muniu’s sense is even better. In addition to defense and assists, he is also willing to challenge the other team’s defenders. 12-year-old Tubi Tubu is the goalkeeper. Being the tallest in the team, he’s never afraid of the striker, and always saves the inevitable goal.
These gifted young players all came from poor families like Azuo Wule’s. Without football, their lives would be quite different.
“I used to think playing football was for fun, but now I think it may be a chance for me to change my destiny,” said Muniu. “I want to be a professional player so that my parents don’t have to work so hard in the fields.”
Wule also shares the same thinking. “I want to be a star so that I can support my mother and little sister, giving them good food and clothes,” he said.
“Training them to be better players is just one thing,” said Barrera,” What’s more, the sport gives the children more options in the future. It’s rewarding to have a good job and help others at the same time.”
Besides Zhaojue, Real Madrid Foundation’s football project is also set to cover another nine counties in Liangshan Prefecture, with the hope that the children will go to Spain for the Mediterranean International Cup youth football tournament next year.
17 kilometers away, Qubi Shigu is still training the students in his own way at Wawu Primary School. On the weekend off, Wule, who had made the place his home since grandma died, returned.
Over the past years, many changes have taken place here – a new dormitory is being built; four new volunteer teachers arrived; a mud footpath was turned into concrete road; teachers and children planted peppercorns, potatoes, sunflowers and alpine roses in school farms; and many students’ families bade farewell to their old mud houses and moved into new government-sponsored apartments in town.
Recent government investment in infrastructure and education has also seen the number of drug users in the Liangshan area drop significantly, down by half year-on-year since 2016, and the number of people infected with HIV has dropped by 24 percent year-on-year over the same period.
“Education is essential to breaking the transmission of poverty between generations,” said Qubi Shigu, “Here we make football a way of education, both for students’ bodies and minds.”
On the roof of the classrooms, the slogan “Make rural schools a place of dreams” stands out. “It has always been my dream to bring a better future for our children and it always will be,” Qubi Shigu said.