Helping Xinjiang's Eagles soar


Far from the warm climes of his Mediterranean roots, Fernando Sanchez Cipitria has found his calling.

Unlike his homeland Spain, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region welcomes with a lingering chill in March. Amid the thawing landscape, Fernando was busy at work, coaching the players of Xinjiang Silk Road Eagles, a soccer club which was established just over a month ago and is aiming to rise through the ranks to eventually fill the void in professional soccer in the region.

While it may be hard to imagine the now portly Fernando was once a formidable forward, the 52-year-old boasts a distinguished playing career — schooled in Real Madrid's youth academy before plying his trade with several La Liga teams, including the 1999-2000 title-winning Deportivo La Coruna squad.

Fernando's connection with the multiethnic region of Xinjiang can be traced back to his early years in coaching.

Forced to end his playing career in his 30s due to a knee injury, Fernando was well qualified to move into coaching, having been mentored by luminaries such as Rafa Benitez and Luis Aragones.

In 2012, he was appointed director of youth training at the Evergrande Football School in South China's Guangdong province. Unexpectedly, it was a group of Xinjiang children at the school that made the biggest impression on him.

"They resemble European players a lot. They're often brimming with determination and confidence, hungry for victory," he said. "There are vast deserts and glaciers in Xinjiang, and sometimes you have to traverse villages to scout players, but the talent of these kids is astonishing, they need a platform to fight for their dreams."

In 2019, despite never coaching a professional team, Fernando took the reins of China's second-tier club Xinjiang Tianshan Leopards, leading the financially modest club to outperform expectations.

Off the field, he footed the bill for team meals and generously donated to sick fans. Despite the rarity of Spaniards working in Xinjiang, he has earned trust and respect here, and is affectionately known as "Old Fei".

"As a coach, the best times of my life have been in Xinjiang. I've bonded with everyone, faced challenges together, and cheered for victories," he said.

Now the bond between Old Fei and Xinjiang has been renewed.

The Xinjiang Silk Road Eagles, the region's first membership-based soccer club, was founded on Feb 4.Despite being offered jobs at several other Chinese clubs, Fernando promptly accepted the invitation from Xinjiang.

"This time it's more challenging because we're starting from the lowest level of the amateur leagues," he said. "But for me, this challenge is also filled with hope and motivation."

Upon landing in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Fernando was greeted by enthusiastic fans at the airport, with the Spaniard pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome. En route to their hotel, Fernando and his assistant David were thrilled to occasionally glimpse familiar sights along the road.

"It's still as warm as ever, with warmhearted people, diverse cuisines, and the magnificent scenery of the Tianshan Mountains," he said.

Since his last stint in China, time has left its mark on Fernando. His hair has turned white and, plagued by knee injuries during his playing days, his now unsteady gait requires frequent rests.

However, his fighting spirit has only grown stronger.

He stressed that his return is not a fleeting whim but part of a long-term plan to strengthen the soccer scene in the region.

While his former star pupils shine in the top-tier Chinese Super League, Fernando has to start from scratch. Without undergoing systematic training, the new team was off the pace.

Fernando and his coaching staff conducted trials for dozens of players in a short period, laying the groundwork for the new squad.

"Everything is fast-paced, with high demands on everyone, but that's precisely the beauty of football," said Fernando. "Now we're here, fully prepared for the upcoming matches."

Seeing so much support from fans reaffirmed his sense of responsibility.

"Football is what I'm best at in my life. Perhaps one day in the future, when I leave, I hope to have established a mature football training system for Xinjiang," he said.

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