Recently, while in between classes, I happened to flip open my well-worn copy of Zhan Guo Ce ("Strategies of the Warring States") and was happily reading about the State of Qi when I stumbled across a reference to the sport of cuju. Developed a little over 2 millennia ago in present-day Shandong province and popular during the Warring States Period, cuju was a sport for dilettantes and courtiers who lived for nothing more than to impress an emperor. The basic objective of the game was to score as many points as possible on a 10- to 12-man team while avoiding fouls and the use of hands. Sound familiar? The sport fell from favor during the Ming Dynasty but formally returned to the Middle Kingdom in the early 1900s as football.
Some 50 years after the formation of the English Football Association, the Chinese Football Association bore itself in 1924. Throughout the 20th century, football in China grew in popularity; official FIFA recognition of Chinese football came in 1931 and the CFA supplanted its headquarters in Beijing in 1955. Professional football was introduced in the early 1990s and almost immediately corruption followed. In 2002 the Chinese men's team skated its way into the World Cup, but I can't seem to remember where they finished.
Currently, when people in China aren't hitting a little white ball over a tiny little net or shooting the rock, or perhaps shuffling tiles about, they might be playing football. And as far as Chengdu is concerned, the only team worthwhile is the Shamrock's Wanderers, a multi-national club playing in the First Division of the Chengdu City League—those lucky enough to be selected to play with the Wanderers are good. The league is the highest-tiered amateur league in Sichuan and often finds itself chock full of former professionals, collegiate athletes, and ringers.
Within the league, the Wanderers are by far the most diverse, both in terms of players' country of origin and occupation. The team's abnormally large roster—boasting 32 footballers—is a virtual United Nations. Although players from the U.S., England, and France make up the bulk of the team, each of the six continents has at least one representative. And when these boys of the pitch aren't volleying balls from their foreheads or chasing down a breakaway, they can be found in the classrooms, schools, and offices of Chengdu. A majority are teachers, both at university and at the myriad of training schools splattered across town. They find time on Wednesday evenings for practice and mold their contracts to allow for a Saturday afternoon free of children to let off some steam and enjoy the camaraderie of sport.
This season the Wanderers call a small, fenced-in piece of turf on Sichuan University's Huaxi campus home. It is there they take the field against the nine other teams in the First Division. The Wanderers have been in the First Division since 2006, when local watering hole Shamrock pitched in to provide financial sponsorship. Beyond free beer after the games, Shamrock has been able to aid the team with league and tournament-entrance fees. Each member of the squad is required to fork over RMB250 for uniform cost and team transportation.
After finishing fifth in the First Division in 2010, the Wanderers are looking to break into the top 3 for the 2011 season. So far, after eight matches, the Wanderers are again sitting in the fifth spot. Currently they are in possession of 3 Ws, a trio of losses and a pair of draws. Following a lackluster season opener on April 16, the Wanderers began a misguided journey of defeat that ended on May 21 with a much-needed win against team Golden Kirin.
On the foot of French dynamo Jamal Bennour, the Wanderers were able to shake the monkey of mediocrity off their backs with a 3-to-1 win over Golden Kirin. The long-awaited victory was achieved with goals in the 20th, 28th and 73rd minutes. Bennour cemented himself as the Man of the Match, scoring the first and third goals, while drawing a foul that set up a PK that allowed Scotsman Andy McAuley to put one in the back of the net.
Coming off the Golden Kirin win, a reenergized and refocused Wanderers team took the field against Cyber Friends on May 28. In a one-sided match dictated by the Wanderers, Cyber Friends allowed three different Wanderers to breach their defenses. The first goal came as Almamy Conde penetrated Cyber Friends' backfield and bested their keeper in the 20th minute. The 36th minute saw Conde put the game on his shoulders as he set up a nice play that ended in American Chris Johnson earning his second goal of the season off the hapless Cyber Friends' goalie. After riding pine for a majority of the match, Yannick Beal masterfully guided in a pass from Is-Haq Shante and past a deflated goalie to ram the final nail into the coffin that holds the decaying corpse of Cyber Friends
On June 4 the Wanderers were able to jump from the sixth to the fifth spot in the First Division standings with a convincing win against Gaoxin Zhonghe. The game was again dominated by Bennour who struck the first goal of the match. The Wanderers would go on to score two more, while only giving up one. With the season one-third over the Wanderers seem to be finding their stride when it matters. They hope to take these trio wins into the summer and finish strong enough to cement their reputation as a perennial powerhouse among Chengdu teams.
If you are interested in joining the team, visit the team website or send them an e-mail to chengduwanderers [AT] gmail [DOT] com.
This article by Marco Lanz was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 45 ("market"). Photos courtesy of Chengdu Wanderers.
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