First match

July 16 was the first match day for the school's annual sports meeting.

In the afternoon, the youngest players experience their first-ever formal game.

Coach Zhao's team plays a five-a-side against a girls' team the same age coached by Ma Yu, 18 years old.

Girls team coach Ma Yu directs her players. Photo: Li Hao/GT

The match is strictly by the rules. The girls must remove their flower headbands and tooth amulets. The players have full kit including shin guards and captain's armband.

At kickoff, the girls appear unready.

Ma finds she must constantly shout instructions at her players, who appear a little overwhelmed by the occasion.

Zhao's team are the more aggressive and experienced. They even appear to use some simple tactics. It's a mismatch.

The girls quickly crumble to lose 10-0.

"I don't mind we lost," Ma tells the Global Times. "But they have to maintain a more focused attitude during the game."

A boy scores from coach Zhao Yaodi's team. Photo: Li Hao/GT

The Henan provincial sport bureau says women's soccer development is a key project and it is also encouraged at the school.

Zhao and Ma's players take care of themselves at boarding school.

Zhao's 20 players have three aunties who look after them. Before the children arrive from canteen after lunch, the three are making beds, turning on the air conditioning and bringing them water in red plastic buckets.

When the players get back, they wash, change clothes and nap in their small wooden beds.

A dormitory assistant helps a boy wash his face. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Step by step

The school has 39 canteens but only three soccer pitches.

Players compete for space with thousands of other schoolmates in the crowded campus.

Coach Liu Songpu once visited the soccer school under Luneng Taishan Football Club in East China's Shandong Province. Luneng has 26 pitches for hundreds of players.

"I am jealous," he says.

A new campus with 10 soccer pitches is being built, says Zhao.

There's no denying the coaches also need to improve.

Zhou Jiangyin (left) in match action. Photo: Li Hao/GT

"It's OK for me to teach basic skills, but I lack knowledge of tactics," Zhao admits.

The school has six Portuguese coaches sent by Henan sport bureau through the youth training promotion project. They have different duties - management, fitness, tactics and techniques.

"I often communicate with the foreign coaches to learn from them," Zhao says.

When the Global Times reporter visited the school, the Portuguese coaches had gone back to their country for visas.

Talent treasure trove

Tagou is also tasked by the General Administration of Sports to find athletes for the summer and winter Olympics.

According to Henan government's website in June 2018, 143 athletes left Tagou to join national training teams in sports including freestyle skiing, snowboarding and surfing.

An ice hockey team is also to be found in Tagou.

They practice with roller skates on the floor.

"These with martial arts background can make achievements in a very short time," Feng Weifeng, who is in charge of publicity for the school, tells the Global Times. "They have great balance and flexibility."

"We aim at the Olympics," he says.

Newspaper headline: KUNG FU KICKS
Shaolin Soccer for real