This aerial photo taken on June 23, 2023 shows the Village Super League in Rongjiang County of southwest China's Guizhou Province. (Photo by Wang Bingzhen/Xinhua)

On March 16, scores of spectators far and near gathered in Rongjiang County, Southwest China’s Guizhou Province to witness the start of the new season for the Finals of Chinese football’s Village Super League, dubbed ‘‘Cun Chao’’ — the Finals is expected to ran until May 25. Organized and played by locals, the Village Super League is an amateur football tournament created for rural residents engaged in various occupations to showcase their football skills and passion for the sport. Divided into two stages, preliminaries of the 2024 Village Super League kicked off on January 6 and ended on February 24 with 62 participating teams, up from 20 last year. Ever since the 2023 edition of the Village Super League went viral last summer, gaining more than 20 billion views online by the end of June, just a little over a month since the grassroots tournament commenced, the competition has continued to gain traction, both in China and abroad.

Over the past year, rising popularity of the Village Super League, known for its down-to-earth nature, spectacular goal-scoring performances and festive atmosphere has significantly impacted the social and economic landscape of Rongjiang, an obscure county in Guizhou province that is presently world-famous for hosting the football games. For example, in the tourism industry, a key driver of socio-economic progress in the County, the football tournament has had a profound impact. Data released by the Village Super League Office of Rongjiang County show that ever since the grassroots football tournament went viral, Rongjiang has attracted more than 7.33 million tourists and generated in total tourism revenue of more than 8.1 billion yuan (about $1.1 billion).

Also, for agriculture, strongly linked to food security and job creation in Rongjiang, the Village Super League is opening up new opportunities for growth in the County and surrounding villages. According to local authorities, during the tournament last year, online and offline sales of agricultural special products in Rongjiang County exceeded 400 million yuan ($55 million), up almost 60 percent. Benefitting from the colossal rise in revenue, surrounding villages and participant of various industries in the County including farmers, entrepreneurs, innovators and owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are inspired to adopt new strategies to earn more income during the football games – leveraging the football tournament to drive sales of agricultural products, and develop the tourism and services sector. Data provided by the local government reveal that as of June 27 last year when the football tournament was ongoing a total of 654 new business enterprises were established in the County including 195 in agriculture and food processing, 188 in retail and 91 in the catering industry.

Villagers of the Dong ethnic group wear their ethnic dress as they sing during the halftime show of a Village Super League match on June 17, 2023. (Xinhua/Yang Wenbin)

By integrating the Village Super League into its socio-economic fabric, Rongjiang, one of the last Chinese counties to eliminate poverty, has established a practical and innovative way to open up new opportunities for growth across various industries – contributing to drive rural vitalization. The effort aligns with China’s rural vitalization strategy proposed in 2017 and detailed in the 14th Five-year Plan (2021-2025) – according to the plan; China will push the development of industries with distinctive rural characteristics, cultivate new industries and modes of business, and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in rural communities. By 2035 China expects to make decisive progress in rural revitalization and achieve basic agriculture modernization – bridging the rural and urban divide, ensuring equitable access to basic public services and empowerment.

Benefitting from the Village Super League, a catalyst for growth across agriculture and various rural industries, the grassroots tournament is also contributing to closing urban-rural gaps; ensuring equitable access to opportunities via football. Through the tournament, Rongjiang is building partnership networks with reputable international organizations around the world. In September 2023 the Chinese Village football competition and the English Premier League established a strategic partnership, another testament to Rongjiang County’s world-famous status. In December last year, the English Premier League launched the Premier Skills project in Rongjiang County to help train local football coaches – this is an invaluable resource for Rongjiang’s football ecosystem and China as a whole.  

Warren Leat, the British Council’s football development manager, conducts a training session for local coaches in a project launched by the Premier League on Dec. 12, 2023. (Xinhua/Liu Xu)

For Rongjiang, home to one of China’s first national football leading counties, with registered football population of more than 1,200 and over 70 percent of its schools providing football coaching, the partnership with the English Premier League, one of the world’s most watched leagues is contributing to lay fertile grounds for football development in the County and surrounding villages, giving rural residents the opportunity to cultivate world-class football talents. Ultimately, cooperation with the English Premier League together with increasing sports infrastructure developments in rural communities will contribute to unlock rural football potential and further drive rural vitalization. As China focuses on building more sports and fitness facilities in over 5,000 townships and sub-districts by 2025; the effort expected to close rural areas and national average gap per capita area for sports utilization, will encourage rural communities to leverage football and other sporting events to drive rural revitalization. 

By: Alexander Ayertey Odonkor