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Rural sports create online and real-life sensation across China

GUESS what the most popular football competition in China is right now? If you thought it was the Chinese Super League, think again.

Thanks to its festive atmosphere and frequent surprise world-class goal-scoring performances, a village football tournament held in Rongjiang County, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, has captured the attention of media, social platforms, and even overseas stars.

Organized and played by locals, the amateur football tournament has been dubbed cun chao (村超) by Chinese netizens, which translates to “village super league.”

On the Chinese Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, the hashtags and topics related to cun chao have garnered more than 200 million views, and several videos of cun chao have received millions of likes on the short-video platform Douyin.

The down-to-earth nature of cun chao even caught the attention of former England star Michael Owen, who recorded a video to show his support.

“I want to say congratulations to cun chao for all your success, for getting all the good results in football. I wish cun chao all the very best for the future. I’m sure you gonna get better and better,” said Owen.

From May to July of this year, 20 teams from Rongjiang County are participating in the cun chao tournament on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Divided into two groups, the teams will compete in round-robin matches and knockout stages, with the final scheduled for July 29.

The players in this village tournament come from diverse backgrounds. They are vendors, farmers, tilers, butchers and factory workers by profession, representing various ethnic groups such as Miao, Dong, Shui, Han and Yao.

With free admission, thousands of spectators flock to the county’s stadium for every match. The stands are often filled to capacity, with some people standing nearby or even squatting on the ground due to the lack of empty seats.

According to local government statistics, the average attendance of cun chao matches has exceeded 10,000, putting it on par with the country’s professional league, the CSL.

For many spectators who travel from far and wide to watch cun chao games, it’s about more than just football.

Rongjiang is home to 15 ethnic groups, with ethnic minorities making up more than 83 percent of its 385,000 population. The county boasts 11 national intangible cultural heritages, such as the Dong folk song and Dong pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute) singing.

Before matches, representatives from each team’s cheerleading squad, dressed in traditional ethnic costumes, carry local specialties on their shoulders, play the reed pipe and dance as they enter the field alongside the local football players. Spectators can also enjoy folk song and dance performances during half-time breaks.

The atmosphere at the venue was so electric that the renowned Chinese sports TV commentator Han Qiaosheng had to climb a ladder to provide commentary.

Han noted that despite covering numerous sports events, including the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, he found the “village super league” in Rongjiang to be unique and entertaining.

David Geary, a football enthusiast from the United Kingdom, attended a cun chao match last week. He was amazed to see so many villagers playing football and organizing their own teams.

“Football brings people together, which is at the core of sports. In cun chao, all villagers come to support their teams, and that’s what football should be like,” said Geary.

The village tournament has firmly put Rongjiang on the map. However, the county has a long-standing football tradition despite its seemingly rapid rise to fame.

According to Lin Tao, an official of the county government, football was introduced to Rongjiang in the 1940s and has since become an integral part of the locals’ lives.

In 2021, Rongjiang was listed by the Chinese Football Association as one of the model counties for football development.

Li Mingxing, the head of the county’s football association, recalled the absence of standard football pitches in the past.

But the harsh conditions didn’t deter local people from pursuing their football dreams. Whether on paddy fields, riverbanks or rugged terrain, residents were often seen playing football.

In recent years, governments at all levels have increased efforts to promote development in rural China, resulting in the expansion and improvement of local sports venues and exercise facilities.

Currently, Rongjiang has more than 30 village football teams and 14 standard football pitches, according to Lin.

“The upgrade of sports facilities has laid a solid foundation for events like this to flourish and encourage more people in the countryside to engage in physical activities,” he said.

Cun chao is just the latest rural sports phenomenon that has swept China.

A village basketball tournament, also in Guizhou Province, has made a significant impact online and offline and is known as “cunBA” among netizens.

Insiders attribute the immense popularity of “cunBA” and cun chao to the fact that these tournaments truly belong to the local people and foster a sense of community unlike any other event.

“‘CunBA’ and cun chao represent a vibrant lifestyle filled with rural enjoyment. They are the result of the country’s rural revitalization campaign and, in turn, will contribute to rural revitalization,” said Qin Chuan, a columnist for a Wuhan-based newspaper.

Taking advantage of the cun chao craze, the Rongjiang County government is developing local tourism and the economy, much like Taipan County with “cunBA.”

“On match days, 200 to 300 stalls have been set up around the stadium to sell local products,” said Xiong Zhuqing from Fengle Village, who sells home-grown watermelon. “We can earn up to nearly 4,000 yuan (US$560) in one night.”

According to Xu Bo, the head of Rongjiang County’s government, they have extended invitations to village football teams outside Rongjiang to transform cun chao into a nationwide competition.

“We will continue to leverage the cun chao brand to boost rural revitalization, ignite people’s passion for football and create a pure atmosphere for playing football,” said Xu.


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