CHINA From cornfields to football fields: the self-taught Xinjiang soccer star


From cornfields to football fields: the self-taught Xinjiang soccer star


10:22, December 28, 2021

Nurmemet Sherep trains himself at a cornfield in Shufu County of Kashgar Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Nov. 13, 2021. (Photos: Xinhua)

URUMQI, Dec. 27 (Xinhua) -- For 21-year-old Nurmemet Sherep, shooting a football into the net without kicking up dust and pieces of grit is still a novel and exhilarating experience.

Almost three months ago, the football player raced on a grass-covered pitch of a national-level football match for the first time in his life, instead of the bumpy cropland where he practiced football for most of his childhood.

"When I scored a goal for our team, I realized that I had finally become a footballer. This is what I dreamed of when I was a kid," said Nurmemet Sherep, a member of the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard Football Club, the only professional football club in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Born and raised in Shufu County, south Xinjiang's Kashgar Prefecture, Nurmemet Sherep became interested in football in 2010 after joining the football team of Saybagh Township Central Primary School when he was a fourth grader.

"I thought it would be great if I could join a professional football team one day," he recalled.

At that time, his family was deeply in debt and was trying to eke out a living by raising livestock and cultivating crops, and purchasing a football or a jersey was an unthinkable luxury.

His parents were thus initially unsupportive of his dream. They hoped that he could study hard at school to get into a university and thereafter land a job such as a teacher or police officer, which would provide him with a stable income.

Nurmemet Sherep poses for a photo with his parents at his home in Shufu County of Kashgar Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Nov. 13, 2021.

However, this did not stop him from frequenting narrow lanes, sheepfolds and a cornfield next to his house in Yukarki Kapa Village, which all served as makeshift training grounds. He instead spent most of his spare time practicing in secret.

Without enough pocket money to buy a football, he crafted one by himself -- stitching a broken ball he found in the village and plugging its leaks with glue.

Without equipment to train with, he picked up everything he found and set up his own sports ground: a cornfield covering nearly 1,500 square meters as his pitch, a hole in the wall of a silo as the goal, and wheels from an abandoned donkey cart as exercise equipment.

Thanks to his efforts, Mehmudjan Tohti, his primary school teacher and football coach, became impressed by his performance in a football match with another primary school in the county.

"We won that match and he performed the best. To encourage him, I bought him a football as a reward," said Mehmudjan Tohti. "Henceforth, he carried that ball wherever he went."

It was the first football Nurmemet Sherep ever owned. For him, more importantly, it was also a motivation that ignited his continuous love for football.

Nurmemet Sherep shows his worn football boots at his yard in Shufu County of Kashgar Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Nov. 13, 2021.

During his senior high school years, he doubled his efforts.

"Back then, I ran for about 40 minutes each way from home to school and back again every day, even on biting cold days, taking the exercise as a warm-up for four hours of football training at school."

In 2018, he was admitted to a technical college in Kashgar and majored in Xinjiang cuisine after he failed to get into a sports college.

"I thought that since I didn't make it, I would give up football and become a chef in the future."

However, his disappointment soon evaporated as the newly renovated field in the college rekindled his love of football.

In November 2019, Nurmemet Sherep set up an account on the popular Chinese short-video platform Douyin and uploaded videos mostly centering on his daily training in the cornfield.

The videos became a significant turning point for him.

In May 2020, the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard Football Club saw the videos of him on the platform, inviting him to go to the regional capital Urumqi for a tryout. "I was so happy that I packed up my belongings immediately and stayed up all night."

But reality soon provided a wakeup call. The coach spotted some deficiencies in his performance in aspects like teamwork and skills. "Soon after I came back, I did exercises based on the guidance of the coach."

Five months later, the team once again sent him an invitation for another tryout. This time, he signed a one-year contract with the team.

"After signing the contract, I cried when I left as I felt I was one step closer to my dream," he said.

In October this year, he scored a goal for his team in a national football game, becoming an overnight social media sensation.

Nurmemet Sherep instructs children at Saybagh Township Central Primary School in Shufu County of Kashgar Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Nov. 15, 2021.

Currently, Nurmemet Sherep has more than 830,000 followers from across China on Douyin, receiving from them words of encouragement. He decided it was time to repay the kindness and pass on his football knowledge to the pupils in his hometown.

Starting in October this year, besides off-season workouts and farm work, he went to the primary school he used to study at and regularly taught students football basics, together with his teacher Mehmudjan Tohti.

Late last month, the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard Football Club renewed his contract for another two years.

"I'll continue with my career. Maybe one day I can play for China's national football team and make contributions in my own way," said Nurmemet Sherep.

Terms of Service & Privacy Policy

We have updated our privacy policy to comply with the latest laws and regulations. The updated policy explains the mechanism of how we collect and treat your personal data. You can learn more about the rights you have by reading our terms of service. Please read them carefully. By clicking AGREE, you indicate that you have read and agreed to our privacy policies

Agree and continue