Xiao Shan (center), coaches his team (CHEN YUANCAI)
On March 30, Xiao Shan, the coach of a girls' football team in Hainan Province, was once again in the spotlight. Xiao and his team, the Qiongzhong Female Football Team (QFFT), won the 2017-18 You Bring Charm to the World Award, following their fairytale journey from amateurs to three-time world champions in little more than a decade. The prize is awarded to outstanding people in China across various fields.
Founded in February 2006, QFFT has won three consecutive world championships at the Gothia Cup and the Gothia Cup China since 2015. The Gothia Cup, named the World Youth Cup by international football's governing body, FIFA, in 2007, is the largest and most international youth football tournament in the world. Held in Sweden every year, around 1,700 teams from 80 nations take part. Hosting its inaugural competition in 2016, the Gothia Cup China is the sister competition to its Swedish counterpart, which hosted 320 teams in Shenyang, northeast China's Liaoning Province, in 2017.
Unlike their rivals, whose players are mostly derived from professional academies and wealthy clubs, QFFT is an amateur-turned-professional team made up of minority girls from the poor mountainous inland of south China's Hainan Province.
The team is based in the Qiongzhong Li and Miao Autonomous County, an impoverished area where low rates of university enrollment and early marriage are the prevailing trends among minority girls. Xiao, a retired football player himself, gave up a well-paid job in the city and trained dozens of rural girls into world champions for minimal pay, lifting them out of poverty and empowering them to find a place in society.
Xiao is now hailed as a hero in Hainan courtesy of his player's exploits at national and international competitions, which have also ignited a love of football among the tropical island's younger generation.
Amateurs to champions
Xiao was born into a footballing family in 1966 in north China's Shanxi Province. His father Gu Zhongsheng was the coach of the Shanxi Provincial Football Team and Xiao, who started playing football when he was 7, later became a professional player on his father's team. His dream was to play for China's national team, but it was an aspiration that would go unfulfilled as he was forced to retire at the age of 28 due to injuries. Xiao later worked as a coach for a club in central China's Hunan Province, earning a handsome salary of over 30,000 yuan ($4,777) per month. However, Xiao's comfortable life was interrupted in 2005 by a phone call from his father, who had retired to Hainan. While living on the island, Gu had discovered that most rural girls of the Li ethnic group were well-built physically and willing to endure hardship, in part because they had to take mountain roads every day to get to school. Gu believed that this prepared them well for playing football. He soon signed an agreement with the local government to set up Hainan's first female football team, aiming to lift the girls out of poverty through the sport.
Over 1,000 families signed their daughters up for the team's trials, knowing that those chosen would enjoy free accommodations and education at the best middle school in the county.
Gu invited Xiao to co-manage the team and, in his own words, "do something meaningful." Xiao, inspired by the opportunity to produce one or two players for the national team that he himself had never reached, resigned from his club in Hunan and moved to Qiongzhong, a backwater county without even one traffic light.
Xiao and his father visited every town in the county to choose players for the team. Eventually 24 girls were chosen, almost all from poor families in the rural areas.
"Do you know what football is?" Xiao asked when he first met the girls.
"Yes. It's a volleyball which can be kicked with our feet," was their reply.
Xiao was understandably worried, and a tight budget made matters worse, leaving the team underfunded and inadequately staffed. Besides being the coach, Xiao also served as the team's cook, driver and occasional doctor, all for a meager monthly remuneration of 1,500 yuan ($238.85).
With Xiao struggling to manage, his wife Wu Xiaoli, once a high jumper herself, gave up her own well-paid job in Haikou, the capital of Hainan, to help out with the team. Wu was put in charge of cooking, mending shoes and training the players. "There was no money to hire more coaches, so I followed them on the pitch every day, learning how to play football and training myself to be an assistant coach," Wu told Beijing Review.
The lack of available funds also led to shortages of food and clothing, and in 2008, the team almost ran out of food to eat. "Sometimes two players had to share one bowl of rice," said Wu. To make ends meet, the couple began planting vegetables on a patch of deserted land on campus and collecting reusable waste to exchange for money. In 2008, the prize for the most hard-working player was an extra egg. Xiao asked for donations from local enterprises and organizations whenever he could to buy football sneakers and kits for the team. "It was a really difficult time," Wu said.
After years of training and several national level games, the team began to show signs of progress. In 2009, QFFT came third in the National U16 Female Football Tournament, the first national-level prize of its kind for the island since Hainan was established as a province in 1988.
This victory saved the team. In 2012, the QFFT was listed as a public organization and funded by the local government, receiving an allocation of 800,000 yuan ($127,277) per year. During 2011-12, several QFFT players entered the national female youth set up, and in 2014, five players were invited to La Liga clubs in Spain on an exchange. As of 2015, they have won three gold medals at the World Youth Cup, grabbing headlines around the world. Last year, their legend was adapted into a film, Running Like Wind, which was released in October. These once shy and disadvantaged rural girls became burgeoning stars.
Members of the Qiongzhong Female Football Team undertake routine training in Hainan on March 3 (QIN BIN)
Xiao is not only helping the girls to earn a place on the international podium, but also at university, an accomplishment once out of reach due to their poverty. In 2011, six of Xiao's first batch of players were admitted to the Physical Education School of Hainan Normal University.
Gao Yuxuan was among them.
The admission letter Gao received from the local university took her family by surprise, after all, no other Gao had ever earned a place at college. Their doubts were soon dispelled by a phone call to Xiao to confirm the news, and before long word of Gao Yuxuan's achievement spread throughout her hometown of Limushan Town, Qiongzhong County. "It was football that changed my life," the 24-year old said through a beaming grin while recalling the dramatic moment seven years ago.
Were it not for football, Gao, the fourth of five children born into a family struggling to get by, would likely have become a migrant worker and married while still in her teens, as was the case for many of her peers.
"My family was poor then and having a child board at school could relieve some of the financial burden. That's why I played football," Gao told Beijing Review.
She had never expected that playing football would allow her to spread her wings and ultimately lift her out of poverty. After five years of training, she began studying sport education at university, and in 2015 she found a decent and stable job as an assistant coach with her old team, enjoying a good salary. Gao is not alone. Five other girls of the Li ethnic group on the team have shaken off poverty in much the same way.
"Many rural girls, who marry early and depend financially on their husbands, are not treated with dignity. Anyone in the family can scold them for minor mistakes," said Wu. "Every girl should live with dignity. We hope to do our bit to change their lives; to lift them out of poverty by engaging them in football. With this skill, they can find their feet in society on their own."
Wu and Xiao have delivered on their promise. In addition to the six players who went to university before becoming coaches in Qiongzhong County, other ex-players have found jobs in different cities. "They send money back home every month, making their families much better off than before," Wu said.
Last August, Alibaba's financial arm the Ant Financial Services Group decided to fund the team to provide better medical treatment, professional training, psychological management and education. "We are not only funding a football team, we are funding the dreams of rural girls. Football gives them a precious chance to reshape their lives," said Peng Lei, CEO of Ant Financial.
What makes Xiao even prouder is that through governmental support and the success of the QFFT, more and more Hainan youngsters are becoming interested in
In January 2017, the China Football Association released a strategy to promote youth football across the country. In Hainan alone, over 300 primary and middle schools were listed as specialist football schools by the end of 2017. An international training system has also been introduced in Hainan to find and groom the most talented players.
"I told my first batch of players that we were here to cultivate a deserted land and to sow the seeds for love of football," said Xiao, adding that if all his players could enter university and become coaches in different counties after graduation, then even more children would be attracted to playing ootball.
Xiao's dream is steadily coming true. Six of his first batch of players have come back to Qiongzhong to train the next generation of footballers. Kids from other counties are being sent to learn how to play football with the QFFT, with a male youth team also having been established. The total number of QFFT players stood at 150 in March 2018. "More and more parents are willing to send their kids to play football. I believe that Chinese football will rise in the next decade," said Wu.
However, she admitted that there is still a lot to be done before China's ascendancy on the football pitch. She believes that a lack of community-level coaches is one of the main challenges. "Early guidance is vital in shaping a player's career. The government should make more effort to train young coaches and offer more up-to-date training to veteran coaches," Wu said, adding that both she and Xiao are in need of more extensive training.
(Reporting from Hainan)
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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