From playing in streets of Accra to Shanghai, coach is pitch perfect

Isaac Asare, football director of a sports club in Changning District, is at his happiest coaching youngsters on how to play the game and cultivate positive habits.

Filmed and edited by Zhou Shengjie. Translated by Ma Yue. Polished by Andy Boreham.

Getting off his hired bike, Isaac Asare walks onto a football pitch on Wanshan Road in Changning District. It’s Monday, the start of another busy week. Two boxes of football jerseys he'd ordered have just arrived, but he'll only have time to deal with them after a two-hour lesson with around 20 youngsters under 10, members of local sports club Active Kidz Shanghai (AKS).

As the club's football director, Isaac could be spending most of his time in an office dealing with day-to-day management but that holds little fascination for him. 

“I’d like to be on the pitch rather than sitting indoors. Teaching is a job I like,” he says.

Asare, from Accra, Ghana, enrolled at Donghua University as a postgraduate in 2008, majoring in industrial economics. He then spent four years to get a PhD in branding and marketing.

“I love sports and football, and running the club is how I combine my passion and major.”

Zhou Shengjie / SHINE

Isaac Asare demonstrates his fooball skills during a class.

Asare's ties with China began long before university. His mother runs a fabric business and used to make frequent trips to China’s southern province of Guangdong for material to import.

“It was in the 1990s and 2000s. She used to tell me quite a lot about the country which was growing at a very fast speed. Also, a lot of products we saw on the market were made in China. From there, my interest in coming to China started growing."

He coached part-time at the club when he was at Donghua University. After graduation, he was able to devote much more of his time and energy to it.

The club has a seven-member coaching team, who are from countries including Argentina, Italy and the Netherlands. Their students are from nearby neighborhoods or schools. About 20 percent are Chinese. The students are divided into teams from Under-7 to Under-18 for recreational or competitive programs. The competitive program students play league games on weekends and often travel abroad to countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore to take part in youth tournaments.

“Back in Ghana, we learn the sport of football by playing on the street. We go playing right after finishing homework and learn from each other. I had a coach after entering university, but most of the skills were self-taught.

“It’s a different case here in China, and we encountered problems like a shortage of football fields at first. But the situation has much improved now, and it’s better for the kids to learn from coaches who can tell them what is right or wrong to do.”

Zhou Shengjie / SHINE

Isaac Asare teaches Under-10 players on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Asare's classes are in three parts — warm-up and ball control, skills practice and competitive matches. At the end of each class, he makes the students sit in a circle for a short analysis of how they can improve.

“The kids are from different countries like Germany, Spain, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Israel. I have principles that everyone has to follow, but how I approach and react to each kid, it’s totally different because of their different backgrounds and cultures.

“We use football as a platform to teach kids good qualities in life and positive habits. You come and play, but also learn how to be responsible and respect each other in team work.”

The students call Isaac by his first name during the classes, though their coach can be quite demanding in training.

“I’m strict, but I’m funny at the same time. I try to be their teacher, friend and big brother the same time. You have to find a suitable role in different situations in front of the children,” Asare says.

Zhou Shengjie / SHINE

"I try to be their teacher, friend and big brother the same time," coach Isaac Asare says.

Being a family man, Isaac spends most of his spare time — which is not a lot — to his wife and 18-month-old daughter, who are “everything to him.”

His wife was his classmate at Donghua University. They rent an apartment in Nanxiang Town in Jiading District and Isaac cycles and takes the Metro to work, a journey of around 50 minutes.

“Before coming to China, my imagination of the country was much more based on the movies about China that I watched, and most of them were of the kung fu type. So I was expecting many Chinese to do kung fu too when I first arrived. After living here for a while, I learned about all the different cultures here, and getting used to them would help me fit myself into the country.”

Ti Gong
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