In China, soccer is the most-watched sport in the country. So it’s not surprising to see freestyle soccer, an extension of the sport’s traditional form, beginning to gain devotees around the Middle Kingdom in recent years. Albeit not as widely known and celebrated when compared with other soccer-frenzied countries like Colombia and Brazil, it’s still slowly starting to become recognized as a legitimate sport and a form of self-expression in China. For Chen Yaguang, one of the figureheads of freestyle soccer in the country, his introduction to the sport happened through YouTube prior to the website being blocked in China and he was instantly hooked. But he wasn’t complacent in merely being a spectator on the sidelines, admiring the talents of overseas freestyle soccer players through online videos. Yaguang soon began devoting nearly all of his time to the sport. His dedication to freestyle soccer culminated into him taking first place in China’s Red Bull Street Style competition back in 2014.
What makes a freestyle soccer player successful involves a mix of few different skills: being able to creatively reimagine the possibilities of basic tricks, pushing the boundaries of said tricks, and having the technical prowess to consistently execute them without error are all aspects of the sport that must be mastered. The ability to cohesively bring all these elements together into a performance is even more important. Chen Yaguang’s capability to balance these crucial facets of the sport, in addition to his unwavering tenacity and passion, has propelled him to become the face of China’s freestyle soccer scene today.
Of course, passion alone isn’t enough. The hard work and rigorous training that happens behind the scenes shaped his path. His daily practice routine generally takes four to five hours to complete. Besides the physical aspects of training, he considers mentally preparation to be equally important. He often spends a large chunk of time thinking about the mechanics and aesthetics of each maneuvers, figuring out how these tricks can transition or interact with one another. “I take these moves that I’ve thoroughly practiced and feel comfortable with, then turn them into combos,” he says. “Practicing a combo may require maintaining an intense 30 to 40 seconds of physically demanding moves. It can definitely be tiring work.”
President Xi Jinping has repeatedly voiced his ambitious dream of improving the quality of China’s soccer scene for several years. Earlier this year, the president’s big push to turn China into the next soccer superpower led to many reforms in the country, including increasing the public’s accessibility to the sport by constructing more soccer fields and improving soccer-related education in schools. The end goal is to cultivate talented homegrown soccer players and have one of the best soccer teams in the world by 2050. Freestyle soccer would appear to be riding on the momentum of Xi Jinxing’s push, with not only an increased interest from the general public, but also investors and brands who are now willing to put money into freestyle soccer-related institutions.
“In the beginning, when people saw me practicing they might ask me what kind of sport this was. But nowadays, people recognize that it’s freestyle soccer and the questions have turned into ‘How long have you been practicing?’ or they might ask even more thoughtful questions about the sport,” Yaguang happily told us. “It’s getting better, especially with the government pushing to improve the soccer scene here.” Slowly but surely, freestyle soccer is growing out of its status as being considered a niche sport in China, and with support from the government, talented individuals like Chen Yaguang have been able to turn their passion and skills into a legitimate career.
“最开始的时候，人们看到我练习的时，会问我你这是什么体育项目。但是现在，他们知道这个是花式足球，也会转而问 ’你玩这个多久了？’或者问些关于花式足球更细致的问题。” 亚光开心的对我们讲。“现在好多了，尤其是政府努力地在推广和提升本土的足球产业。” 虽然慢，但是可以肯定的是，伴随着政府的支持，花式足球已经成长为一项正式的运动，像陈亚光这样牛逼的选手，也能够把自己的爱好发展成正当的职业。
Even the conservative mentality attributed to traditional Chinese families seems to be shifting as soccer continues to gain momentum in the country. Not long ago, it might be completely unthinkable for some Chinese families to see their children pursue a nontraditional career path like soccer. “When I first started practicing freestyle soccer, my family wasn’t supportive. But it’s because I was still in school and they thought that it would have a negative effect on my studies,” Yaguang explained. “After graduating, I’ve started making money off of this. My parents actually have a fairly open outlook on things now. Their thinking is that no matter what I do, if I can make a living and live a life of value then they’ll be happy.”