A TEAM of diehards from County Durham are pioneering British participation in a sport which dates back 1,500 years in China.
Shuttlecock football, or Jiànzi, involves players using their feet and other parts of their body, but not their hands, to score points over a net on a court similar to a badminton arena.
Barcelona soccer superstar Lionel Messi even gave a TV demonstration which appears on YouTube.
But while the sport is popular in Asia, and in parts of Europe, it had never caught on in Britain until a team from Consett YMCA took part in an exchange visit to Hungary six years ago.
Now the Consett team regular represent Britain in tournaments in Hungary and Germany.
And they will be demonstrating their prowess when young athletes from 11 countries visit County Durham in June for a mini-Olympic tournament.
Billy Robson, 56, chief executive of Consett YMCA, explained: “We visited Hungary a few years ago as part of a goodwill visit, to play a local team at football. The Hungarians gave us a demonstration of shuttlecock football and we decided we would try it out ourselves.
“We were invited to send a team to the Hungarian Open, playing other teams from Europe, in 2007 and we came last. But we have been back a few years since then and we no longer finish last.”
Yesterday Jianzi players from Consett and some from the Hungarian town of Vjszasz, around 50 miles from Budapest, gave a demonstration of the sport in County Hall, Durham.
An interested spectator was Brian Stobie, international relations officer for Durham County Council, who explained: “In June, to celebrate the Olympics, Durham County is hosting an International Youth Games tournament, when we host teams from 11 different countries.
“A number of competitors will be staying at the YMCA and the Consett team will be delighted to give them a shuttlecock football demonstration.
“Who knows, one day it may become an Olympic sport.”
The team from Consett has recently returned from their fourth Hungarian Open, where Billy, David Winter and Marcus Peart took part in the senior section and Graeme Dodds, Kyle Holt and Joe Rowell competed in the junior tournament.
Taking on players from several different countries, the team won four games and improved their European ranking.
Billy said: “The beauty about this sport is that it is inter-generational. I enjoy playing aged 56 and in China people in their eighties take part.”
The team train at Consett YMCA every Wednesday and new players are always welcome. The YMCA are the governing body for Shuttlecock Football Federation England.