By Guillermo Benavides
Beijing, Jul 18 (EFE) – An amateur soccer league known as Cun Chao, or Village Super League (VLS), has sparked the interest of fans of the sport in China with footage of the rural tournament going viral and drawing in a massive influx of visitors to rural areas.
Starring athletes from ethnic minorities from rural areas across the vast country, the VSL has shed light on the weariness felt by many soccer fans in China over corruption allegations that loom over many clubs with huge budgets in favor of a simple but exhilarating alternative.
The Cun Chao league, which brings together 20 teams featuring players aged between 15 and 40 from different professional backgrounds and myriad ethnic groups, is organized and played in Rongjiang County, in the southern province of Guizhou.
Since its inception on May 13, the competition has amassed 500,000 spectators, with an average crowd of 10,000 per game which has placed it on par with the Chinese Super League (CSL).
The matches have attracted fans on a budget and have driven the local economy with hotel bookings growing by 143.3%, according to the Meituan platform.
According to organizers, the league has racked up revenues worth 130 million yuan while also boosting tourism and local gastronomy as fans enjoy regional delicacies on match days.
The unprecedented success of the competition lies in how the matches have gone viral on social media.
On Weibo — China’s version of Twitter, which is banned in the country — hashtags and trending topics about the VSL have racked up more than 200 million views and the league’s videos have garnered millions of ‘likes’ on platforms like Douyin, China’s TikTok.
Such is VSL’s online success that ex-England soccer player and 2001 Ballon d’Or, Michael Owen, shared a video of a match in which he congratulated the participants for their success.
Basketball, which is much more popular in China than soccer, also has a rural tournament.
Cun BA, or Village Basketball Association (VBA), matches have a capacity for 20,000 spectators and 30 million people follow the games online.
The league’s success has pushed investments in rural revitalization and development, one of the cornerstones of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies after he pledged to lift millions of people in rural areas out of extreme poverty by 2021.
The Chinese government recently launched an initiative to establish over 100 rural sporting events by 2035.
But China’s passion for rural sports leagues — where players, referees and cheerleaders are all local and thrilling matches are peppered with ethnic dances, music and prizes that consist mainly of agricultural products — has sparked a nationwide debate around preserving rural traditions and avoiding their commercialization.
Soccer fans in China have welcomed the joyous VSL amid the negative image Chinese soccer has, which faces challenges over its commercialization and allegations of corruption.
“The Cun Chao stands out for its authenticity and its focus on a passion for soccer, which is far from the commercialization of the sport in urban areas,” one follower on Weibo noted in a comment backed by thousands of users.