HAIKOU China (Xinhua) --
Gao Yuying could have become a farmer like her
parents, or waited tables, or just married young and been a
housewife like most of her peers, but soccer changed her life.
Gao, 24, from
Qiongzhong, a poor county in south China’s Hainan Province, was
selected to play for the first ever Qiongzhong women’s soccer
team in 2006, which later meant she could enter college.
Her team received
national fame when, three times in a row, it won the Gothia Cup,
the world’s largest youth soccer tournament. After graduation
from the Hainan Normal University, Gao turned down a well-paid
job and became a Qiongzhong women soccer-team coach.
At the upcoming
final of the FIFA World Cup scheduled Sunday in Moscow, one of
Gao’s players, 10-year-old Wu You, will be a ball girl. By
playing soccer, poor girls like Gao and Wu can access the
outside world and make a better life for themselves.
The women’s soccer
team was formed in 2006 under financial support of the county
government, with players offered free school and accommodation.
Each player was
granted five yuan (75 U.S. cents) as meal subsidy every day,
one-seventh of that for a provincial-level athlete. To feed
themselves, the team grew their own vegetables after training.
Gao, among the first
batch of 24 players, had never seen real soccer until she joined
the team, aged 12.
“We got an unwritten
rule: the one who worked hardest during training would enjoy an
egg for the breakfast the next morning,” she says.
Qiongzhong is a
mountainous county in Hainan, where students have to climb over
steep peaks and trek for hours just to get to school.
“Years of trekking
in the mountains made them superior athletes,” says 52-year-old
head coach Xiao Shan.
The team got up at
5:30 a.m., ran 4,000 meters before practising soccer skills.
Some players suffered from injuries due to five hours’ intensive
training every day.
In 2008, Xiao led
the team to Guangdong Province to attend winter training for a
high-school league tournament. The team lost the first two
matches, 8-0 and 9-0.
“Seeing contempt in
our rivals’ eyes, we were too humiliated to finish dinner,” Gao
says. “The failure made us practice even harder. We would have
gained nothing if we had continued to lose.”
As the only women’s
soccer team in Qiongzhong, they had to turn to the men’s team
for practice and matches.
The years of hard
training finally paid off.
The team won several
national-level matches, before winning the Gothia Cup from 2015
to 2017. Professional coaches volunteered to help them with
training, and sponsors emerged to pay for their travel.
teammate Chen Qiaocui remembers when they boarded a high-speed
train for the first time.
“Coach Xiao told us
the train ran ‘fast as a rocket.’ So when the train set out, we
screamed a little and clutched firmly to the handles before we
realized we had been fooled,” says Chen, who is now also a
member of the coaching team.
In 2011, six players
including Gao and Chen were listed as national top-level
athletes. They were admitted to a local university, astonishing
their parents. Few girls had ever entered senior-high school in
the county, let alone university.
“A parent even
called me to ask whether the college admission letter was
authentic,” Xiao says with a smile.
Over the past 12
years, the team produced 57 national level athletes, and 24
athletes entered university.
Xiao hopes more
girls will be able to escape the mountains and enter the
national women soccer team or university.
“Even though not all
of them will continue to play soccer, the experience of fighting
for their dreams and sharing with teammates will be memorable,”