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Taking the eagles to the sky: Spanish coach’s aspiration for Xinjiang football

Shiliuyun-Xinjiang Daily (Reporter Qian Yongwen) news: At first sight, Fernando Sanchez Cipitria seems to be an abrupt face in a football pitch full of Chinese players. The Spaniard is a bit plump, and staggers a little under the weight of injured knees, but in coaching, he is an indisputable authority.

Fernando Sanchez Cipitria, coach of the Silk Road Eagles football club (Courtesy photo)

Fernando Sanchez Cipitria, coach of the Silk Road Eagles football club (Courtesy photo)

Sanchez, once a formidable player in La Liga matches, is the coach for the Silk Road Eagles football club in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. A well-trained football player from the prestigious Real Madrid’s youth academy, Sanchez played for several La Liga teams, and aided Deportivo La Coruna to claim its first La Liga title for the 1999/2000 season.

However, up-and-coming Sanchez had to bid farewell to his athletic career after playing football for 13 years due to a serious knee injury. But he has never been far from his beloved football fields. Sanchez worked as a technical director for the Real Madrid academy and supervised youth training in a football school in south China’s Guangdong Province.

Sanchez’s connection with Xinjiang’s football teams can be traced back to five years ago. In 2019, Sanchez took the reins of the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopards, then a club of Chinese Football Association China League. Despite never coaching a professional team in China before, he led the club in founding its footing in the league.

Off the field, he footed the bill for team meals, shared Xinjiang delicacies with the players, and generously donated to fans who have illness. While propelling the team to stardom, Sanchez won the hearts of many Xinjiang fans.

«The last time I coached in Xinjiang, I bonded with Xinjiang people who love football. Even when I returned to Spain, I kept in touch with them. So, I said yes the moment the club gave me the offer,” Sanchez said. “What I’m looking forward to is helping build a platform for Xinjiang children to pursue a football career.»

With the love for Xinjiang and the passion for football, Sanchez returned to the foot of the vast Tianshan Mountains from the warm and humid Mediterranean Sea in the early spring of 2024. He began to serve as the chief coach of the Xinjiang Silk Road Eagles football club. He hopes to lead the newly-established team to championship in this year’s Chinese Football Association Member Association Champions League. Here, he is affectionately known as «Old Fei» by the players and fans.

While time has shaped the young man brimming with energy to “Old Fei,” Xinjiang’s young football players full of hope and vitality remind him of his young self.

Fernando Sanchez Cipitria, coach of the Silk Road Eagles football club (Courtesy photo)

“These players show talent and vitality similar to European players, and every one of them is unique,” said Sanchez, who expressed his appreciation for young Xinjiang players.

It was no easy task to forge the strengths of a young team. Despite the fact that there was no systematic winter training or physical reserve period, Sanchez led the freshman team, which had only practiced as a team twice, in winning the qualifying match for the Xinjiang Division of the 2024 Chinese Football Association Member Association Champions League. It was the first championship for the team, and also a new start toward a higher goal.

When the Silk Road Eagles scored their first goal, Sanchez called the player to the side of the pitch and asked them to sign their names on a football in memory of the moment. The goal also turned Sanchez’s Xinjiang story to a new page. He said to the whole team, «This is the first step we have taken together, let us continue to fight together and win greater glory.»

Photo taken on March 23, 2024 shows players of the Silk Road Eagles football club participate in the qualifying match for the Xinjiang Division of the 2024 Chinese Football Association Member Association Champions League. (Photo by Shiliuyun-Xinjiang Daily/ Qian Yongwen)

Unlike most stern chief coaches, Sanchez is enthusiastic and dynamic. «Faster! Faster!» «Defense!»… When coaching the game, Sanchez will shout out every tactical requirement in his lame Chinese, and always encourage the players with cheering and applause. He hopes to keep the players focused on the game and strive for every victory.

«This time, it’s more challenging because we’re starting from the lowest level of an amateur league. But this challenge also filled me with hope and motivation because the players are extraordinarily passionate about football.»

Fernando Sanchez Cipitria (second from the left) coaches a regular training session. (Photo courtesy of the Silk Road Eagles football club)

During the two years when coaching the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopards, Sanchez visited most of the areas across Xinjiang in order to scout talented football players. Vast deserts, towering snow mountains, hospitable people, various delicacies were all imprinted on his memory.

But what impressed the Spanish coach the most was children kicking football happily in streets of cities and villages. Returning to Xinjiang, Sanchez has a bigger ambition – to help the Silk Road Eagles football club establish a sound youth training system, so that more children can enjoy the sport.

«I think that a solid foundation is the most important thing for a team to grow. Just like building a house, you have to start with the foundation,” Sanchez said, hoping more young people in Xinjiang can play football. «Everything in Xinjiang is so familiar, just like coming back home.»

Hou Weili contributed to this story.

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