Zibo's rise millennia in the making

By SHI FUTIAN| (China Daily)| Updated : 2021-01-05

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An artifact from ancient China describes a kid playing cuju, kept at the Linzi Football Museum, Shangdong province.[Photo/IC]

Soccer's ancient birthplace finally tasting success in the modern-day game

Locals in Zibo, Shandong province, will proudly tell you that their city is the birthplace of soccer. Now Zibo Cuju FC's promotion to China League One has put the city on the modern game's map, with fans and the team eager to write a whole new chapter of history on the pitch.

The ancient Chinese game of cuju, which has been traced back to the Linzi district of Zibo, was in 2004 acknowledged by FIFA as the earliest form of soccer. The word "cu" means to kick, while "ju "refers to an ancient type of leather ball filled with feathers.

The sport emerged during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Back then, cuju was used to train military cavaliers due to its fierce nature. It flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and remained popular until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Cuju was listed among the first batch of China's "intangible cultural heritages" in 2006.

Despite this rich history, success in China's professional ranks had proved elusive for Zibo, a relatively small city with a population of 4.7 million. Now, however, Zibo's soccer fans can dare to dream of mixing it with the nation's big guns after earning promotion to China League One, just one tier below the top flight where the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guo'an all dwell.

"Zibo is considered the place where soccer originated, and now we finally have a soccer team to play in the second-tier league. This is a dream come true for the city. It has special meaning for us, and it's a great honor," said Zibo Cuju's head coach, Hou Zhiqiang.

"Even among the second-tier league clubs, there are very few teams that are based in small cities like us. Most of them are based in big cities like Chengdu, Wuhan or Qingdao. We are really proud that a team from a third-tier city like us has managed to reach China League One."

Hou's players are raring for the step up in quality next season, which will reportedly kick off in March.

"My goal now is to give my best performance playing in China League One," said Zibo Cuju's 19-year-old midfielder Xie Wenneng. "I need to learn more and gain more experience from the veterans and know how to read the game. I still have big room for improvement."

Cuju certainly don't seem content to just make up the numbers, with coach Hou instilling a steely determination in his troops that was much in evidence as it beat the odds to finish second in the third tier and earn promotion last month.

"From the sixth round, we knew we had to win every game to break through the group stage. No draw or defeat could be tolerated. That was truly huge pressure for everyone in the team," said Hou.

"We are very united. And I always believed we had the best quality of training among all the third-tier teams. We believe in ourselves and that's why we made it."

As well as facing tougher rivals on the pitch, Zibo Cuju is also braced for bigger tests off it-especially in financial terms.

"We finished the first step, but we are about to face many more challenges," Hou admitted. "We have to meet the standards for registration-so, for example, we need to establish our club's first training base, and we are required to have five youth teams. We also need to fix many problems we've had for years."

Even in the best of times, it can be tough for small clubs to stay afloat. However the COVID-19 pandemic has made surviving on a tight budget even more precarious, with everything from ticket sales to investment affected.

Last May, 11 teams were thrown out of 2020 season's pro leagues in China due to wage arrears. Another five clubs voluntarily fell by the wayside due to money troubles, including Tianjin Tianhai, then of the Chinese Super League.

However, thanks to China's successfully containment of COVID-19, fans were gradually allowed back in the stands during the second half of last season, with the outlook for the 2021 campaign a lot brighter.

"In the most difficult times, Zibo's local government and sports bureau helped us to survive. That was the only reason why we were able to finish last season," said Hou.

"I always believe the fans are the foundation of a club. I want to thank all our fans who supported us. I'm confident in our future development. It will benefit the sports industry and economy of our city."