Chinese Teacher for Deaf Builds World Cup Squad, Part 2

No. 32

Hello and welcome to the second and final part of our longread about a hugely successful soccer team for the deaf from China. It’s a translation that first appeared in the Chinese online platform Truman Story.

In Part 1, we met Zheng Guodong, a special education teacher in the the southern province of Guangdong. We saw how he spent just over three dollars to buy all the leftover soccer balls at a sports store and assembled a straggly group of deaf students on an dirty plot of land to create a football team. Just a few years later, they would go on to represent China in the World Cup for the deaf.

We pick up events at the fourth section of the feature.

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Chinese Teacher for the Deaf Who Built a World Cup Squad, Part 2

Courtesy Truman Story.

4.

Back in Zhanjiang, the soccer team became the talk of the special education school. Every player was awarded 1,000 yuan (around $140). This was the first time they had earned their own income.

For most players, this was also their first trip to a faraway location. After returning to school, they had to check in at their hometowns too. Some of the players were greeted by neighbors with firecrackers when they got home. Some of the more excited parents even treated friends to meals.

Locals also held up the players as role models for youngsters in their respective towns. These folks who were once viewed as useless losers actually earned a second-place finish in a national competition. The players started behaving differently, a glow of pride replacing looks of desperation.

The national soccer competition for the deaf became an annual tradition. The Guangdong Disabled Persons’ Federation decided that from then on, the Guangdong second squad, which had nearly been abandoned, would represent the province.

The second edition of the soccer tournament was held in the southwestern city of Chongqing. It marked the first time the Zhanjiang players had taken a train.

The tournament was held in June, the venue Datianwan Stadium, which was China’s first grade A soccer stadium. It was a grass pitch. But what the Zhanjiang team didn’t expect was the constant downpour, which turned the pitch into a mud bath.

Soccer in the mud has its own logic, but the team from Zhanjiang lacked experience in this department. Their footwork-oriented southern Chinese soccer style didn’t adapt well. It was so muddy that some players got their soccer boots lodged in the mud during matches and had to continue with only their socks on.

Chen Zhenhua, last year’s shooter of the tournament, became a marked man. His short stature, tan skin and sparse hair made the “little old man” instantly recognizable. Wherever he was located on the pitch, he would always find himself double-teamed.

The confident team came home empty-handed, only managing a sixth-place finish.

As far as Zheng Guodong was concerned, the reason behind the disappointing finish was complacency. After coming second a year ago, the players started to let pride get to their heads. The team was mired in frequent infighting, with different factions refusing to pass to another or bailing on practice altogether.

Tensions escalated on the eve of the tournament in Chongqing. Captain Chen Zhenhua and his deputy Tang Feiting got into a major fistfight over a trivial matter. Chen ended up breaking one of Tang’s brow ridges, which required stitches at the hospital.

Everyone was in a state of despair on the train ride back. Zheng Guodong delivered a stern lecture when the group gathered at the school cafeteria back in Zhanjiang.

“If you want to keep playing, you have to discover your form again. If you continue like this, you won’t have the chance to play.”

The threat of not being able to play soccer again got the attention of this gang of rascals.

It was close to summer vacation at that point, but Zheng Guodong decided to keep his players at school for training. No one complained. Their initial taste of success brought them a dizzying sense of ecstasy. Their second outing taught them that soccer wasn’t simply a matter of luck.

Zheng Guodong forced his players to train even when it rained. When the dirt pitch was drenched, it was nearly impossible to pass and dribble. The muddy ground turned extremely uneven when it stopped raining and had to be resurfaced.

Meanwhile, Zheng Guodong also cultivated team spirit. He set new rules that required players to wear the same kit during training and matches and to keep their gear in order. The whole team had to be present before they started eating at mealtime.

Every training session began with the same sign language: one arm bent at a right angle, fist clenched, then yanked toward the body several times, as if lifting weights. That means “work hard.”

After a year of training, the players boarded a northbound train. The third national soccer tournament for the deaf was held in Beijing. Everyone was excited about the prospect of visiting the capital. They all wanted to see the sites they had read about in textbooks: Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Imperial Place and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall.

Summers in Beijing can be quite dry and the tournament was held on artificial grass pitches at Toumengou Secondary School, conditions that lent themselves to teamwork-driven soccer. More importantly, the Zhanjiang players had something to prove.

Coach Jia Hongwen of Liaoning province said that even though he had become very friendly with the Zhanjiang players over the years, they were all business that year. They would stop their chatter instantly when they saw him, lest they give away strategy or tactics.

Zhanjiang’s first match pitted it against Shanxi, a relatively weaker squad. It was as if the Zhanjiang players wanted to vent over the blood, sweat and tears they had shed over the past year. They scored about a dozen goals while shutting out Shanxi.

The team as a whole was more aggressive than the year before. All three of Zhanjiang’s forwards injured themselves during the tournament.

In the semifinals, Zhanjiang faced off against Liaoning, the best team in the country. In the first half, Chen Zhenhua dribbled the ball into Liaoning’s penalty area during one attack and found himself sandwiched by two defenders. At that point, Liaoning’s goalkeeper surged forward too, accidentally colliding into Chen Zhenhua’s chest with one of his knees.

Chen Zhenhua collapsed, but his eyeballs were still glued to the ball. He got up quickly and made for it. Two steps in he passed out and had to be rushed to the hospital.

By the final, Zhanjiang’s three forwards were too badly injured to play. The team was left with only midfielders and defenders. Zheng Guodong adjusted his game plan accordingly to a defense-oriented strategy. Zhanjiang ended up winning 5-4 in penalty kicks.

It was Zhanjiang’s first national championship. The players leapt into the air and hugged each other in tears. Zhen Guodong’s eyes were also bloodshot.

During the prize presentation ceremony, the Zhanjiang players chewed on their gold medals gently—just like they had seen on TV. Back at the hotel, in a gentlemanly gesture, they gave the bouquets they received to the cleaners.

5.

The year 2005 was a transitional year for Zheng Guodong. In 2004, when his team was struggling, his personal life was also at an awkward juncture. His extra-curricular soccer coaching wasn’t going anywhere, not to mention he was still a temp teacher.

His first love was in Shenzhen. He took a nearly 10-hour journey to visit her, hoping to salvage the relationship. He was even planning on proposing. When he got to Shenzhen he found out that his former girlfriend got married after losing contact with him.

In late 2004, Zheng Guodong had to chaperon a member of the school’s swimming team to a training block in the northern city of Tianjin. While transiting in Beijing, he met a young woman during a tour of the Imperial Palace.

She was a primary school teacher, also a fellow solo tourist. She asked Zheng Guodong to take a picture of her. Afterward, the two decided to pair up.

When Zheng Guodong returned to Zhanjiang, the couple stayed in constant touch by phone. In February, the young woman, who lived in central Hubei province, decided to visit Zheng Guodong.

Between his new relationship and winning the national championship that year, Zheng Guodong felt he was on a roll. In 2006, he got married and held his wedding banquet. The school also asked him to sit for the exam to become a permanent employee, which he passed. He finally bid farewell to his temp days of a monthly salary of 490 yuan.

The soccer training continued. The Guangdong Disabled Persons’ Federation decided to fund the team, which turned it into a semi-professional squad. This ragtag group that took flight from a dirt pitch was now a legitimate side.

The players used to be the special education school’s biggest troublemakers. When the team was first formed, there were three rival leaders from different grades. None of them answered to or backed down from the other two. Chen Zhenhua and Tang Feiting often got into bloody fights.

Gradually, they evolved from playing soccer. Chen and Tang progressed from refusing to pass to each other to Tang lifting Chen’s leg and mock-kissing it when the latter scored, just like the pros do on TV.

Leizhou Peninsula is one of China’s most gang-infested areas. In the past, some of the special education school’s main troublemakers were easy recruits. The players on the soccer team would have been prime candidates for gang membership. Now, Zheng Guodong is confident they won’t go astray.

“I realized that sports is a great tool that lays the foundation for happy lives,” he said. After coaching his kids for some dozen years, Zheng Guodong still believes that what drives his passion is education, not soccer.

When he first started working at the special education school, Zheng Guodong took the fifth-grade class for which he served as homeroom teacher on a 15-kilometer trek across the city. He took his several dozen students through parks, universities, factories and shops, so they could get a glimpse of the real world beyond their campus bubble.

The parents of deaf children tend to react in two ways—either with indulgence or oblivion. These two seemingly contradictory responses share a common ground—the lack of expectations.

No one teaches these kids survival skills or exposes them to society-at-large. Many of the students graduate from the special education school without ever using an ATM card.

These kids who have been mistreated by fate are viewed as losers. What parents want for their handicapped children first and foremost is to get through life unscathed. If they can get married and support themselves, that’s already a tremendous stroke of luck.

Dreams and self-actualization are phrases that don’t exist in the worlds of these deaf children—until soccer gave them both.

Zheng Guodong said the national championship made the team proud, but “in a good way.” The players went onto to two gold medals at the Chinese National Games and two more national championships. They had no match within the country.

In 2006, Chen Zhenhua, Li Haiyang and Fang Chunwei were selected for the national team. Leizhou Peninsula has a seafaring tradition. Whenever they played, their parents prayed at local temples, asking their ancestors and gods to protect their children and bring them luck.

In 2008, the Chinese national team, drawing largely from the Zhanjiang squad, competed in the first ever soccer World Cup for the deaf in Greece, with Zheng Guodong at the helm. The team was invincible from 2005 to 2013, earning a reputation as the “Barcelona FC” in the world of soccer for the deaf.

Li Haiyang playing in the third Asia-Pacific Deaf Indoor Futsal Championship. Courtesty Truman Story.

6.

Why play soccer? It’s a difficult sensation to describe, more so for the deaf. “It’s fun,” many of the deaf players told me.

But there’s much more than meets the eye. Soccer not only brings them pleasure, but also the recognition they so badly crave, as well as a means of survival. This is their only tool for self-validation.

If not for soccer, Chen Zhihui would have gone home, become a cane farmer and been married off to another deaf person.

If not for soccer, Li Haiyang would have joined the workforce, maybe ending up at a factory in Shenzhen performing low-skill labor that required minimal communication. He would have soldiered on day and night like a robot, a silent gear churning away in a robust machine.

If not for soccer, Chen Zhenhua never would have overcome his anger and rage, nor would he have found an outlet for his dominant personality. He would have only kept causing trouble for his father and spent the rest of his life a failure, not the pride of his hometown.

For Zheng Guodong, soccer also brings a feeling difficult to put into words.

Located in western Guangdong, Zhanjiang isn’t an economic powerhouse. It still hasn’t been included in China’s vast high-speed rail network. “Laidback” is how every local I encountered described it.

One day I made plans to meet Zheng Guodong at a seaside milk tea shop. It was a weekday afternoon, but the two-story building was packed. Our table had a view of clusters of coconut trees and the ocean. As the sea breeze blew gently, the coconut trees swayed. The city is also covered with open-air restaurants, barbecue stalls and dessert shops. Pedestrians look relaxed and stroll deliberately.

Growing up in a place like this, Zheng Guodong never harbored any grand goals. As a kid, his most important hobby was reading comic books. To this day, his bookshelf at home is cluttered with the comic books and related toys he collected over the years.

Dragonball and the Taiwanese series Wulongyuan are his favorites. The worlds created by comic books are black-and-white. He’s the first to admit that, just like any young boy obsessed with comics, he too fantasized about turning into a superhero and saving the world.

More often than not, he feels he is an ordinary person. When his first girlfriend urged him to move to Shenzhen, he refused, because he is not the ambitious type. I asked him to name his hobbies. He paused briefly before answering, “staring at the sky.”

The skies are pristine blue in Zhanjiang. He often kills time by gazing aimlessly upward. Sometimes it’s on a bike ride when he’s captivated by the vastness of the atmosphere, on other occasions his balcony at night, when he admires the stars sparkling in the dark.

Zhanjiang is a mundane city. Dreams are incubated in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But soccer inspired Zheng Guodong and his kids to dream. It became an addiction that fueled him, that made him believe that ordinary people can have dreams.

But a city like this also offers them sanctuary. Unlike his middle-aged contemporaries in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Zheng Guodong has avoided the trap of middle-class anxieties and mid-life burnout, retaining a certain innocence and passion instead.

He likes to chat with his pals tirelessly into the night about a single topic—how to ensure his kids keep playing soccer and keep playing happily.

I often recall an exchange between the two of us. We were chatting at a small spicy hot pot restaurant located in a dimly lit alley. Over spicy kebabs, somehow the conversation drifted to outer space. “Do you believe in aliens?” Zheng Guodong asked me.

He’s already a 39-year-old father with a son, a daughter and aging parents, but I saw a flash of innocence on his face, an expression I rarely see in middle-aged people.

“I do. The universe is so big. How can us earthlings be the only ones around?” he mumbled to himself.

Postscript

After the team turned semi-professional, provincial authorities assigned it a professional coach to serve as head coach and Zheng Guodong became his deputy. The new head coach was quite strict and clashed with the players. In 2013, Guangdong’s soccer team for the deaf was officially disbanded.

After feeling depressed for a while, Zheng Guodong decided to launch a comeback. He started organizing new teams for both deaf boys and girls.

At that point, he had no financial or institutional support. The dirt pitch at the special education school had become a construction site. He held daily training sessions in the early evening after classes ended on a cement patch on the margins of the school’s basketball courts.

He has two partners in his venture. The first is Feng Weizhong, who joined Zheng Guodong’s team in 2007 as a goalkeeping coach. Feng Weizhong was a member of the Guangdong youth squad and played professionally in Singapore, although he did not stick with it. At one point when he was struggling financially, he was a driver for Didi—the Chinese equivalent of Uber.

As someone with professional soccer experience, soccer for the deaf represented a clean, unpolluted fresh start.

The second is Wu Gang, a junior secondary classmate. Wu had worked in various cities but never found a peace of mind. His most recent job was in the salmon business in Haikou in the southern province of Hainan.

He started driving Zheng Guodong’s players to practice when he returned to Zhanjiang briefly to deal with family matters. His ambition is to build a soccer club for the deaf. Thus far he is volunteering his services.

Chen Zhenhua is now living in his hometown of Wushizhen. He’s raising two daughters with his wife and plans on starting a new business after a first one, a hotpot restaurant, didn’t work out.

In December 2012, the Chen family home caught fire after an explosion erupted. Chen Heping’s 2-year-old granddaughter was stuck in a room on the third floor. The elder Chen braved smoke and fire in an attempt to rescue her, but stumbled on the second-floor staircase. Chen Zhenhua stepped up and saved the child after dousing himself in water and entering the building twice.

Chen Heping finally felt his son had amounted to something. “I never thought I would have been less capable than a disabled person,” he said.

I met two other deaf people at Chen Zhenhua’s home—Huang Feidi and his younger brother Huang Zhi.

Neither had any formal schooling, so they don’t even know how to sign. They were a textbook example of how deaf people from the bottom rung of Chinese society typically fare.

Huang Feidi’s family arranged for him to marry a woman who’s mentally disabled and mentally ill. The couple can’t communicate—yet they had three children together. Huang Feidi’s father, who runs the family orchard with his son, is a picture of exhaustion and depression.

Huang Zhi, the youngest child of the family, idles away his days riding his motorbike around town. Not even his mother knows what goes through his head. Chen Zhenhua said someone wanted to set Huang Zhi up with a deaf woman, which prompted the latter to turn blush.

Chen Zhenhua now gives the Huang brothers daily sign language lessons, teaching them basic phrases like “mom,” “dad,” “thank you” and “thanks for your hard work.” Once viewed as a thug, Chen Zhenhua is now a genuinely kind person.

He also plays soccer every day with the young men of Wushizhen in the early evening. He’s worked hard to build a local soccer culture, organizing an annual soccer tournament during Chinese New Year that has become a major event in the holiday period.

To this day, Wushizhen isn’t equipped with a proper soccer pitch. Chen Zhenhua and his young friends play on the local basketball courts. The cement is extremely solid and prone to cause injury and their makeshift goals are merely 30 centimeters high, but the group still plays with gusto. Chen Zhenhua told me his goal is to build a real soccer pitch in Wushizhen.

Li Haiyang married Lao Lianqing, the first captain of Zheng Guodong’s girls’ squad. His team long gone, Li Haiyang still trains daily at a soccer field near his home. He kicks the ball against the wall and fires practice shots at the goal off the deflections.

Lei Jun contributed to this article.


Translator: Min Lee