Artux rallies around Xinjiang soccer competition


Passionate fans in Artux, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, are getting behind the city's first regional invitational soccer competition, cheering for teams both local and from further afield, embracing the community spirit and injecting vitality into the local economy.

Artux has a rich soccer history, and is thought by many to be one of the earliest cities on the Silk Road where the sport was played in relatively modern times.

Memet Ismail, 73, waited in the stands in his wheelchair for an hour before kickoff, hoping to lift the spirits of his nephew, who is the head coach of a team from Urumqi, the regional capital.

His excitement has been shared by tens of thousands of fans during the ongoing 12-day tournament in the Kizilsu Kirgiz autonomous prefecture of Xinjiang.

Another fan, Muhmet Reyim, 78, said he didn't want to miss a single match of the tournament. "I've liked soccer since childhood, and I played soccer when I was young," he said, adding that he wanted to feel the intoxicating atmosphere again.

A total of 216 players from eight areas of Xinjiang are competing in the event. After 20 matches, 300,000 yuan ($41,300) will be awarded to the champion team, 200,000 yuan to the runners-up and 100,000 yuan to the third-placed team.

The field at the Kizilsu Kirgiz Experimental Middle School can accommodate 5,000 people and has been often filled to capacity.

Localized and grassroots sports competitions have become a trend in China in recent times due to their ability to bring communities together, promote healthy lifestyles and give the economy a boost.

In 1885, the first soccer field was built in the Artux village of Eksak. Soccer has become an important sport at primary and middle schools as part of the city's efforts to train talented young soccer players, according to the local government.

"After coming here, I realized that this is the real hometown of soccer," said Alikar Abdulushur, a player from the Changji team. "I also really like the fans here. Their desire for soccer is incredible. Even grandpas in their 80s come here to cheer for us. I am very happy to be in such a good environment, which is essential for the development of Chinese soccer."

Not far from the pitch, 30 or so booths sell food such as pilaf, baked buns and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

Tursun Memet, who sells baked mutton, said he has earned 600 yuan a day on average so far during the competition.

Speaking of the positive impact that soccer has had on the local community, Li Xinbin, Party secretary of Artux, said: "Our soccer players contribute to major matches. Female soccer is developing fast, and soccer infrastructure is becoming optimized. And the spirit of openness, inclusiveness, teamwork and perseverance from soccer has inspired people from all ethnic groups."

He added that especially in Eksak, soccer has become part of the villagers' blood and soul.

"From stumbling toddlers to elderly people, every moment is filled with passion. For them, soccer is honor and life, and it hasn't changed for more than a century," he said.

The tournament will run until Wednesday.

Zhang Feng contributed to this story.

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