HANGZHOU: Friends call him “Maradona” and Chinese media have dubbed him “Soccer Nut” —Zhao Chongshan is 63 but he still plays football three times a week and has no plan to hang up his boots.
Zhao looks like any other doting grandfather with his gentle manner and warm smile, but he is something of a celebrity in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang because of his enduring fitness and undying love for football.
Zhao’s strong legs and broad shoulders hint at the professional player that he once was, even if he is carrying a little bulk around his waist these days.
“I will keep playing as long as I can, I feel I have no problem playing three games per week now,” he said.
The impact of football on Zhao’s life cannot be underestimated.
He began playing as a young boy on the streets, and as a 15-year-old was good enough to join the professional side representing northern China’s Shaanxi province.
Had he not been part of the team, he would have been sent to the countryside along with millions of other youths as part of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.
Then a pacy winger, Zhao played for Shaanxi until he was 27, when the family moved to the city of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang, where he lives today.
Zhao said there is no secret to his good health — he is clearly a born sportsman and still also plays basketball and table tennis.
Not to be outdone, his wife Peng Qiaoyun — remarkably, they were born on the same day in February 1955 — is a dance coach.
Zhao was a right winger in his pomp but now plays in midfield or defence after his mobility drained away.
From there he can dictate play and is equally comfortable with his right or left foot, a skill which still eludes many top players.
On Saturday, in the stifling humidity of a town outside Hangzhou, Zhao’s amateur side of mostly middle-aged men were thrashed 8-0 by Zhejiang’s professional women’s team.
Wearing the number “65” on his jersey — Zhao’s next landmark, according to the Chinese method of counting birthdays — he played the first half against the much fitter and younger women’s team.
The game often passed Zhao by, but the quality was still there even if the agility was not, only giving the ball away once and playing simple, first-time passes.