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Partner university soccer team scores high in camaraderie

How the college soccer team at ASU’s collaborative partner university in China is forging a sense of belonging


HAITC soccer team members huddle together on a field.

Members of the Hainan University-ASU International Tourism College (HAITC) soccer team huddle before a recent match. ASU photo

December 12, 2023

Members of the Hainan University soccer team have seen a lot of success on the field lately. But they aren't just winning games — they're also winning hearts and forging a powerful sense of belonging among their players.

The story of Hainan University-Arizona State University International Tourism College’s (HAITC's) soccer squad is as much about unity, camaraderie and the transformative impact of sports as it is about scoring goals.

HAITC offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in tourism development and management, parks and recreation management, and public administration. More than 1,200 students from all of China’s provinces are enrolled in the college. Far away from home, many students turn to sports like basketball, badminton, table tennis, street dance and soccer to bond with their fellow students outside the classroom.

Well aware of students’ passion for soccer and their pride in HAITC, ASU Assistant Professor Bruno Ferreira and Hainan University (HNU) professors Chen Zhen and Abe Alhamzi saw an opportunity to take the soccer team to the next level by bringing in coaching expertise from local sports club HaiBase. With only a few months of practice, the team had a powerful run at last season’s HNU intercollege soccer championship, getting incredibly close to reaching the semifinals for the first time ever. They only succumbed to the College of Material Science on a nerve-racking penalty shootout, despite dominating the game and having the best chances to score.

The team is determined to do even better this season. They won their opening match 4-1, with a stunning hat-trick from their captain. At the center of this narrative is not only the team's impressive performance on the pitch but the culture of accountability and responsibility they have cultivated within the squad. The coaching staff at HAITC has made it a priority to create an environment in which players with little to no previous experience in the sport can come together as a cohesive unit and excel in the game.

The team's captain, Byron Bao, a senior from Zhengzhou, Henan Province, exemplifies the spirit of unity that defines HAITC soccer. He said joining the team was a given for him, considering he had always dreamed of playing soccer competitively. However, it is the camaraderie within the team, the shared passion for soccer and the “unforgettable friendships with different kinds of people” that will stay with him forever.

People playing soccer on a field.
HAITC soccer team members warm up before a recent match in Hainan, China. ASU photo

HAITC alumnus and former team captain Joe Zhao is a master's degree student in sports business and innovation at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. In his junior year, his leadership and commitment to the team did not go unnoticed, gaining him an internship as a youth soccer coach at HaiBase’s academy in Holiday Beach, West Haikou. He believes this experience and the club endorsement were critical for his graduate school application success.

The coaching philosophy at HAITC goes beyond tactical strategies and skill development. UEFA-certified coach Hugo Martins emphasizes the importance of mutual respect, teamwork and understanding among players. According to club owner Vivin Ding, this holistic approach to sports performance is what makes HaiBase a special soccer club in the Chinese context. So far, this approach has enhanced the players' on-field chemistry and fostered lasting friendships that extend beyond the soccer pitch.

As the HAITC soccer team continues to excel on the field, the coaching staff’s greatest achievement may well be the sense of belonging and community they have cultivated among the college’s students.

Written by Bruno Simoes Ferreira, HAITC, School of Community Resources and Development

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