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Teaching an obsession
( 2003-08-07 11:32) (Eastday.com)

Football instructor Keith Blunt doesn't know the meaning of the word `quit.' Now he's instilling the same passion in China's young footballers, Zhou Zuyi reports.

At the age of 64, football instructor Kelth Blunt still has a youthful passion for the game. [eastday.com]
t's difficult to determine Keith Blunt's age if you encounter the football instructor on the pitch. In the sizzling afternoon heat, the barebacked Englishman goes through another daily 90-minute training session at Jing'an Stadium, the home base for Shanghai Coerver 2000, the city's third professional team currently competing for Chinese Football League Third Division.

The overwhelming heat suppresses everyone's desire to speak out, except for Blunt. ``Keep on, boys! Get tight!'' His voice reverberating through the stadium. Many may doubt how a man of 64 years old can be so dynamic.

``I really like practice with the boys,'' says Blunt, the coaching director of Shanghai Coerver Coaching, a local company known for teenage football training programs.

``I come here everyday even though it's a team under Colin Toal's command, not mine. I come here to assist him and also, enjoy myself. Being the next Bobby Robson? Why not?''

The 70-year-old Robson, now managing Newcastle United in the English Premier League, is known for his dedication to the sport. Robson's nomadic career as a coach in different European nations in the past decade also makes him an ambassador for British football. Yet even Robson's resume doesn't include China, an up-and-coming nation in the football world, where Blunt has spent the last five years instilling the British way of playing and nurturing the game. The Chinese Football Association signed Blunt and Toal, a Blunt protege, to take charge of the country's U-23 National Team in 1998, but replaced them months later with compatriot Bobby Houghton, coach of the national team as well.

They believed Houghton the better choice to lead the U-23 team's challenge for the 2000 Olympic Games qualification. Blunt and Toal were relegated to the U-19 level, where they stayed for one year before the authorities dismissed all the three Englishmen. The reason: Houghton's team faltered on the way to Sydney and the CFA lost confidence in the British trio.

``When I first came to China, I thought I might stay for two or three years,'' says Blunt. ``As I left the national youth team, I believed it was the end.'' But an offer from Hao Qing, the owner of Shanghai Coerver Coaching, opened a new chapter for Blunt in China. The job with Coerver basically means Blunt oversees one training camp after another.

It could be for boys, girls or rookies learning the football coaching business. Away from his previous experience at the pinnacle of Chinese football, Blunt deliberately lowered himself to the grass roots game. The London-born football fanatic never thought the drop in rank was demeaning. And there are certain things in China that still give him headaches. ``Once in a training camp, I found no player from Zhejiang Province and asked somebody for an explanation,'' he says.

``Guess what? They told me, `nobody plays good football in Zhejiang.' That's ridiculous, Zhejiang has a population as much as that of Britain. So, in China, I believe the enormous talent pool is there and the most important part of the job is to find the talent. That's where the excitement is.''

Blunt has a proven eye for spotting young talent. During his seven-year stint as the coaching director with the England National Football School from 1991 to 1998, he turned the institution into a breeding ground for big names such as Michael Owen, Danny Murphy (both with Liverpool) and Joe Cole (West Ham United).

``I chose Colin Toal, instead of Keith, as the head coach for Shanghai Coerver 2000 because I think Keith's specialization lies in developing young talent, not running a professional team,'' says Hao. Unlike many British football managers, Blunt didn't have a lustrous career as a footballer himself. He earned a law and a physical education degree in college. Before taking up the coaching job at Plymouth in 1973, Blunt had worked as a high school physical education teacher for 10 years.

``That may to some extent explain my preference for the current job,'' Blunt says. In the early 1980s, Blunt began a decade-long adventure across the English Channel, during which he first met Houghton in Sweden with Malmo Club. ``I learned Swedish and French when I worked for clubs on the continent,'' says Blunt.

``It's essential for a foreign coach to take command of the local language, but now it's already too late to learn Chinese. What a pity.'' But it's passion that keeps Blunt going despite the barriers. ``Keith is always energetic when it comes to football,'' says Hao. ``In those camps, he just looks like a devoted high school teacher.''

The Englishman helped set up four short-term camps in China in 2002, some of which were located in the northern province of Liaoning, 2,000 kilometers away from Shanghai. Besides, he also supervises the regular training program in Coerver centers across the city. ``Sometimes I do ask myself the question: `Why the hell are you staying here, 6,000 miles away from home?' '' Blunt asks.

``But you know, Coerver offered me a good contract, a downtown apartment and, above all, a job that I like most.''

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