DKU men’s soccer reaches quarterfinals in first Suzhou College Football League Tournament appearance

Duke Kunshan University’s men's soccer team joined the district-wide Suzhou College Football League and competed in the league’s 2024 inter-school soccer tournament for the first time in program history. 

DKU qualified for the quarterfinals by placing second out of the four teams in the group stage of the tournament. 

The SCFL is organized by the Suzhou Municipal Sports Bureau, the Suzhou Education Bureau and the Municipal Committee of the Communist Youth League. The 2024 season began March 13 with a total participation of around 300 athletes from 12 universities in the district of Suzhou.

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DKU has a relatively new team, as the DKU Football Club was founded in 2021. The DKU women's soccer team is currently in the process of joining the women's SCFL.

Originally, SCFL rules limited the number of international students allowed to participate in the league. These restrictions were fully removed in March following advocacy from DKU men’s soccer coach Aleksandar Tomic, Zarko Krkeljas, DKU athletic director and adjunct professor, Hongtao Cai, DKU vice chancellor for government affairs, and sport engagement coordinator Kang An during meetings with the Suzhou Football Association.

DKU’s team is the most internationally diverse team in the league, with 13 Chinese and 10 international players. This has been a source of pride for the DKU community and team, but not without its challenges.

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“It's hard to communicate with the referees, and I think that's the main issue we've been facing,” said DKU team captain Othmane Echchabi, a senior and the only international student captain among the tournament’s 12 teams. “Of course, we have a few Chinese students in the team, but on the spot, there's so many emotions involved … and you can’t just pause and wait for someone who speaks Chinese to go and speak to the referee.”

DKU’s relatively small size can also be a challenge. 

“We're competing with universities who have [10,000] or 15,000 students on their campus, and we are a university [with] around 2,000 students,” said Tomic, who became the team’s coach in July 2023. “So of these 2,000 students, I need to make a very good selection of the players.”

Echchabi also said that being a less experienced team makes playing 90-minute matches feel more physically intense.

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“We're all students, we're not athletes. We didn't join DKU to be athletes to be part of the team, it just happened for us to have that passion,” Echchabi said. “When [injuries] happen, you look at our team, and then you see that half the team is gone, and we don't have a lot of choice in terms of who to play when other players are missing.”

Tomic added that players leaving for a semester abroad at Duke or other institutions further complicates maintaining the team’s lineup, since “the chemistry in the team is [always] changing.”

A strength the DKU team has over other teams in the league is its international playing style which is “way different than all the other universities,” Echchabi said. He attributes this strength to the team’s coach not being Chinese and the different styles of play that the team members have been exposed to.

At the end of the day, though, “the game is still the game,” he said.

DKU won the first two matches they played in the tournament, but Echchabi said due to player injuries and a limited number of substitutes, they struggled in the following games.

The DKU team played their first home game March 22, winning 1-0 against Suzhou University of Science and Technology in the tournament’s group stage. In an effort to enhance DKU’s connections with the local Kunshan community, 1,000 children from surrounding elementary schools, including the Canadian International School of Kunshan, were invited to watch the game.

Tomic is confident about the team’s future performance in the league’s annual tournament, as well as the four other tournaments the team has signed up to play in the coming academic year. In his opinion, joining the SCFL is an opportunity for DKU as a developing institution to further integrate with the wider community.


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