Shanghai’s amateur football leagues (English)

An Article was released on Global Times China including also the voice of current Shanghai Kickers FC Team Manager Bilgin Guengoermues (former also Shanghai Krauts FC) and star player Stoyan Atsarov: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/974403.shtml

Shanghai's long history with foreigners has, over the centuries, turned it into a haven for sports enthusiasts. From opening China's very first golf course in what is now the Shanghai Zoo to horse-racing stadiums in what is today's People's Square, the city has a well-established reputation for sports.

In the early 1990s, long after leisure games such as cricket and rowing fell into disfavor, more competitive sports clubs began popping up around Shanghai, with football (soccer) becoming the most prevalent. This was largely due to the growing numbers of Europeans and South Americans moving to Shanghai to establish businesses here or study at its esteemed universities.

On weekends, these athletically inclined expats would arrange pick-up games as a way to let off pressure as well as network with fellow foreigners. By 1994, monthly football tournaments were being organized and hosted in local stadiums. The very first formal tournament was between four teams - Oranje, Lions, Mediterranean and Russians - with Mediterranean winning the cup.

Due to the popularity of that first tournament, the following year the Shanghai International Football League (SIFL) was formally established. Today, the league claims two divisions: a first Division with 10 teams and a Premier League with eight teams.

Stoppage time

One of the oldest Premier League teams in SIFL is Shanghai Krauts FC, which was originally founded by German expats but today is comprised of players of all nationalities, including their Turkish-born coach Bilgin Gungormus.

Gungormus, whose day job in Shanghai since 1999 is as Head of International Business at German insurance company Allianz China, first started playing with the Bulls of Bosporus team, which was founded by a former Consul General of Turkey in Shanghai. He joined the Krauts in 2001 and took over the team in three years.

"I played actively for more than 15 years as a defender, but there was a Russian-Korean striker named Stas from Reunited who scored four goals against me in one game," Gungormus told the Global Times. "For me I never saw a better player in Shanghai. The year after that I brought him over to Krauts, where he scored 47 goals in 17 games with us."

A knee injury forced Gungormus off the pitch a decade later, but he stayed on as coach. With more than 80 players and two different teams, several members of the Krauts have over the years been chosen to play for some of China's top professional football clubs, including Shanghai Shenhua FC.

Balancing ball and career

Currently, the youngest player in the SIFL is also a student at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. Just 20 years old, Turkey-born Enis Nayir (pictured top right) spends his weekdays studying Chinese language and literature, then hits the pitch all weekend.

"Living in Shanghai is a wonderful chance to play in such an international environment and against lots of former professional players from around the world," Nayir told the Global Times. "Being on this team has also contributed quite a lot in terms of my social life and future career."

Andrea Speranza from Italy, who has been playing football in Shanghai for more than 15 years, runs a startup social sports network called Yeyu, which counts famous professional player such as retired German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann among its investors.

"I believe that sports can heal and refine a soul," said Speranza. "When I started Yeyu, I wanted to transmit these values via a digital tool. I wanted an ecosystem where these values would unify users, help them connect to each other and create all kinds of sports activities, sometimes even discover activities they were not aware of."

Among SIFL's former professional players, Stoyan Atsarov from Bulgaria transferred to Wuhan Zall Football Club in Hubei Province in 1997 after stints with the Levski and Slavia football clubs and Bulgarian national team. After retiring from football, he relocated to Shanghai to found a Bulgarian food import company. Unable to completely kick off his cleats, however, Atsarov soon joined up with the Krauts, with whom he has been playing for the past six years.

Mutually beneficial

In addition to SIFL, the Shanghai Premier League (SPL) is another local amateur league founded in 2003 by former SIFL Shanghai Lions coach Freek Boelen from Holland. SPL's teams play in collaboration with the Pudong government, including a Shanghai Traffic Police team and various youth leagues. In 2014, SPL organized a quadrennial  Mini World Cup.

Boelen and his team are hoping to further inspire amateur football across China. In order to develop more football talent, they have established their own youth academy for young Chinese students who are trained by their own players. The Dutch coach believes that by blending foreign expertise of football with local Chinese talent, football can become "mutually beneficial" in regards to China's aspirations for the World Cup.

"Football in Shanghai is different than what we are used to back home. The key differences are the lack of playing fields and lack of sports clubs. Without those it's hard to develop youth soccer here," Boelen told the Global Times. "The Shanghai government should recognize amateur leagues and youth programs and give them more support by supplying fields from schools or by building more sports facilities."

"At home in Holland, you can only play against Dutch people," added Boelen, a senior trade manager at Wilmar International. "But Shanghai is a very international city. It's like a world championship every week."

Gungormus agrees. "Football does not know race or religion. If every nation worked like our football community in Shanghai works, there would be peace all over the world," he said.

This story was written by Furkan Erdogan for the Global Times

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