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More than a game

Updated: 2023-08-30 08:03 ( CHINA DAILY )
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Million Miles competes in a women's soccer match named Shero, organized by iQiyi Sports, in Beijing on July 16. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In a journey of self-improvement and empowerment, the Million Miles women's soccer team in Tianjin is not only rekindling dreams but also breaking down barriers and cultivating lasting connections, Chen Xue reports.

Xiaxia (pseudonym), 33, was introduced to the world of soccer when she discovered a Japanese animé called Captain Tsubasa during her primary school years. "The depiction of teamwork and unwavering dedication in the show ignited a fire within me," she said.

However, Xiaxia soon confronted societal resistance to her passion. "Many people questioned the idea of girls playing soccer," she said. "They believe that a girl should have the demeanor of a girl, and should engage in more 'feminine' activities like dancing or swimming."

Throughout her upbringing, Xiaxia often played soccer with boys since it was hard to find fellow female players. After she entered high school, however, the physical disparities between boys and girls became more apparent, leading her to feel increasingly uncomfortable playing soccer with boys. So she stopped engaging in the sport, not just when she was a high school and college student, but also after she started working.

A few years ago, Xiaxia received an invitation from her taekwondo coach, a fellow woman, to join a local group of female soccer players in Tianjin. This opportunity allowed her to reignite her childhood passion. Earlier this year, Xiaxia took a significant step by establishing her own soccer team, which she named Zhongli in Chinese and Million Miles in English.

She explained that the term Zhongli was taken from the famous verse by Song Dynasty poet Xin Qiji (1140 — 1207): "In the crowd once and again, I look for her in vain. When all at once I turn my head, I find her there where lantern light is dimly shed."

"It's a very subtle way to express my gratitude for being able to meet such wonderful women who share the same interests and aspirations," she explained.

Being a photography enthusiast, Xiaxia takes pictures of the team's training sessions and shares them on Xiaohongshu — an online lifestyle-sharing platform — to showcase the team's activities and attract like-minded women.

And Li Suyang was one of those women.

Finding my place

Li, 33, a doctoral student at Tianjin University of Technology, first encountered Million Miles last month while searching for female soccer teams on Xiaohongshu.

Li reminisced about her early fascination with female soccer games during her primary school years. Despite the presence of many popular male soccer stars like Michael Owen and David Beckham at the time, Li was particularly drawn to Bai Jie, a member of the Chinese women's soccer team.

"Bai's identity as a female player resonated with me," Li explained. "Her distinctive appearance, featuring shorter hair and a more intense playing style, further solidified my connection to her."

Ever since then, Li has found a sense of belonging on the field. During the summer holidays in middle school, she would get up at five in the morning every day to play soccer with her brother and his friends, even on rainy days. And she still remembers how she would sneakily listen to radio commentary in class about the Chinese men's soccer team matches when they made it to the World Cup finals for the first time in 2001.

The inclusive nature of soccer particularly resonated with Li. "Unlike basketball, which requires a hoop, soccer is a sport that anyone can participate in, anytime and anywhere," she said. "And there's a position for everyone — whether you're suited to being an attacker or a defender. The sense of involvement is profound."

At least, this was how she felt when she was younger because this inclusiveness didn't last long. When Li grew older and entered college, both social pressure and the lack of female soccer groups prevented her from continuing with her passion.

But last month, rather than waiting for change to arrive, Li took the initiative of searching for female soccer teams herself, which led her to the discovery of Million Miles and subsequently joining the team.

"Being able to play soccer again has allowed me to rediscover a sense of courage and strength that had waned over the years," she said. "Through soccer, I've reconnected with the very essence of who I am."

From little things, big things grow

Before entering university, Wang Jiayi had never stepped onto a soccer field. "Sports wasn't really my focus before college," said the 20-year-old.

However, her perspective changed after witnessing the passion and fervor of a male soccer match at Tianjin Chengjian University, where she was a freshman in 2020. Captivated by the sport, Wang eagerly wanted to get involved. But the absence of a women's soccer team at the university meant she could only join the male soccer team in a management capacity. And the following year, she took the initiative to establish a women's soccer team at the school.

Recruiting team members proved to be challenging. Wang visited the campus sports ground each morning to approach girls out exercising. She also sought out potential players from the university's women's basketball and volleyball teams. "Girls joined out of curiosity, but their interest in soccer was limited. So the coach and I had to motivate them both before and during training sessions," said Wang. "Gradually, their attitudes began to shift."

Wang is the team's goalkeeper, and she takes her role very seriously: "I believe that the goalkeeper holds a unique significance within the team since you serve as the final line of defense. This position carries profound duty and honor."

But this role has also seen her suffer severe injuries. Playing on artificial turf fields frequently results in skin abrasions when she dives for the ball. The risks associated with facing high-speed shots head-on is another challenge. She recalled incidents where the ball struck her nose, causing bleeding. Another time, she suffered nasty bruises on her hip after an opposing forward stepped on her when she was making a save.

In June, Wang joined Million Miles, also as a goalkeeper. In the team she made an interesting observation: None of the team members were married. "It seems that marriage and motherhood often prevent women from pursuing their personal development — not only affecting their choice of career but also hindering the realization of their own personal value," she said.

But something did change: From struggling to find team members just two years ago, incoming freshmen are already seeking her out to join the women's soccer team even before the new semester begins. "I'm so delighted that interest is growing among the younger generation," said Wang.

Battling stereotypes

Chen Shihan, 20, first developed an interest in soccer in 2014, sparked by the World Cup held in Brazil. A middle school student at the time, Chen's talent for the sport shone through despite having limited guidance from coaches or her parents. "I improved rapidly through playing with boys and sometimes even outperformed them," she recalled. "Soccer gave me a sense of confidence."

However, her skill was, at times, used as a reason to belittle others. "Some male players would tease their fellow players, saying, 'You can't even defend against a girl'. These remarks left a lasting impact on me," Chen said.

Upon enrolling in Nankai University in Tianjin in 2020, Chen immediately joined the school's women's soccer team. However, the team lacked official recognition at the time, meaning that they were unable to participate in the city's College Football League. So, after becoming the team leader the following year, Chen made it her mission to secure recognition from the university's sports department, which required nearly five months of tireless communication and the submission of a comprehensive 50-page report. Eventually, their efforts yielded success.

Another leadership responsibility of Chen is to foster a sense of belonging. Whenever the team recruits new members, they try hard to let the new players feel the fun of soccer, either by teaching them footwork or team coordination or letting them feel the thrill of scoring a goal.

"For me, success is simply keeping members engaged and playing. Skill improvement comes after that," she said.

Chen joined Million Miles in March as she wanted to compete on a bigger stage. "There are retired professional female athletes in teams like Million Miles, which is something we don't have on campus," she said.

Looking back on the past few years of her involvement in women's soccer, Chen has recognized that getting physically stronger and better at the game isn't the most important part. What she values most is the connections she builds with like-minded women. "It's not easy to find women with such an intense dedication to soccer, which has given our friendships a profound depth and meaning," she said.

New horizons

As for the future, Chen aspires to turn soccer into a lifelong pursuit. In fact, she is already doing it. Currently studying applied physics, Chen is planning to pursue a graduate degree in sports science. "I want to get closer to what I love," said Chen, who is also envisioning investing in youth soccer training when she achieves financial stability, offering younger generations the opportunities she didn't have.

Wang is also finding her own path. Following her participation in a women's soccer match named Shero, organized by iQiyi Sports in Beijing last month, Wang secured a summer internship with iQiyi Sports. With her background in industrial design, she contributed to designing posters related to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, which ended on Aug 20.

"I had the opportunity to witness the professionalism of women working in the sports sector. For me, this internship is not just about amassing work experience but also represents an expansion of the horizons for women's lifestyles," said Wang, adding that she would love to apply for an official job opportunity with iQiyi Sports when she graduates next year.

Xiaxia is still facing certain problems. For instance, it's very hard to find suitable soccer shoes for her team members since most soccer boots are tailored for men. But she managed to secure some sponsorships for the team, including a rental fee discount for a training field and free products from two energy drink brands. And Million Miles now boasts a WeChat group with 108 members.

Li believes that by actively engaging in training and matches, she is doing what she can to support women's soccer. "You never really know if a quick glimpse of our training session might light up a young girl's passion for soccer. This spark could turn into a bigger fire that pushes women's soccer forward," she said.

No matter how dim the light is, these young women have found soccer, and they've found each other.