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    The Fall of China’s Half-Korean Soccer Team

    Despite being relegated from China’s top league, one of the country’s poorest teams retains a strong fan following.

    JILIN, Northeast China — It was one of the last games in the Chinese Super League season, and Yanbian Funde was in danger of being relegated to a lower division. Fans watched with bated breath as the match clock counted down, hoping for the players from Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture to tie the game. But the final whistle sounded, and it was over: Yanbian lost 1-2 to its adversary, Henan Jianye. Next season, Yanbian will be playing in the lower-level China League One.

    “We didn’t want to lose, but we did,” Sun Jun, a forward on the team, told Sixth Tone. “We have to accept it. The game is over, and you can’t change the results.”

    When Yanbian entered the Super League in 2015, the team was the pride and joy of over 2 million fans in the small, mostly Korean community. Jin Bo, the manager of the team’s fan club, went to Shanghai five days ahead of Yanbian’s season opener in the Super League. “That was a good game,” he said. “We were the guest team, and we tied. We left the game with our heads held high.”

    The team’s history goes back over a hundred years. First established in 1908, Yanbian won China’s national championship in 1969. Through their passion and dedication, the team’s players have attracted fans of all ages. Jin Zhongyu, 81, has been a supporter of Yanbian Funde for his entire life. “Many people have asked me why I’m still watching soccer at my age,” he told Sixth Tone. “But we have to come and support the team.”

    Located near China’s border with North Korea, Yanbian is home to one of the worst-funded teams in the Super League. Despite its loyal fan base, the team received just 160 million yuan ($25 million) last season — less than 10 percent of the amount received by perennial powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande. In 2017, the majority of Yanbian’s funding came from the Chinese Football Association, and from the money saved when it transferred one of its star players.

    Apart from a lack of funding, the team was also plagued by numerous injuries throughout the season. “We never had a completely healthy team,” said Sun. “I’ve had three surgeries, and my ankles were injured a couple of times. I was anxious when I watched the games during my recovery in South Korea.”

    But despite being relegated, the team continues to be an inspiration to the local community. “Becoming a player on Yanbian’s team is the dream of every child here,” said Jin Zhoufeng, the team’s ball boy.

    Regardless of whether they win or lose, players can always count on the vociferous support of at least one fan. “We can be the champions of China League One!” said the elderly but enthusiastic Jin Zhongyu. “I’ll still cheer for them.”

    This article has been updated to include Yanbian’s income figures for the 2017 season.

    Contributions: Chen Tao; editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Yanbian Funde players leave their home stadium after their final game of the Chinese Super League season, Yanji, Jilin province, Nov. 4, 2017. Zhang Shuang/IC)