On the Pitch, You Are Never Alone
I have never liked the word goodbye.
Whenever I hear it, painful memories appear. One of the worst took place on a train station in my hometown of Wuhan when I was 12 years old. It was a bitterly cold February night, and we were in the middle of the Chinese New Year, which is basically like an XXL version of Christmas. For one glorious week, you go home, you eat delicious food, you see your friends and family.
For me, that week is heaven. I never want it to end.
The holiday was particularly important to me that year because I was living away from home for the first time. I was attending a boarding school in Beijing run by the Chinese national team and Renmin University High School. It was so tough. The school was for the Chinese under-17 team, so I was several years younger than most of the players there. I was lonely. I was missing my parents so much that I’d often break down in tears.
So you can imagine how horrible it was for me when, having just come home for the holiday, I had to go back to the school after only three days. They didn’t give us more time off. Just when I needed my family the most, I had to board a sleeper train to Beijing — alone.
My parents and my older brother had come with me to the station. My father was following me to the gate. I looked at him. I wanted to tell him something, but I didn’t know if I dared.
I wish I could say that I thought everything was going to be O.K.
But that’s not how my brain works. That’s not who I am.
I have a reputation, I think, for being a positive, optimistic person. But really, I am not. And no matter how bad I am feeling, I never want to make people worry about me — not even my parents. So that night at the train station, my instinct was to suffer in silence. And yet I was in such a bad state that I made an exception.
Just when I needed my family the most, I had to board a sleeper train to Beijing — alone.
I told my father how I felt.
I said, “I don’t want to go!”
He had a surprise for me. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “You go today, and I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I cried out, “You have to come, Dad! Promise!”
We said goodbye.
I spent the night on the train crying myself to sleep. When I arrived in Beijing, I did not need long to discover the truth. My father had lied to me.
He never came.
I was distraught. Only later did I fully understand that he was trying to push me in the right direction. He knew I had to get on that train, that I had to go back to Beijing. Today, I’m glad that I have such a caring father.
I say father … although deep down, I know that he really isn’t.
In fact, I hardly ever see my real parents anymore.
When I was five, my parents got divorced. I knew they didn’t get along well, but when my father had told me that I was going to live with my aunt and uncle, I struggled to accept it. I cried all night. I felt so vulnerable. To make things worse, both he and my mother left Wuhan for different cities, so I could no longer see them.
Today, I rarely talk to them. I feel no connection to them at all. Just thinking about that goodbye fills me with … sadness … it’s hard to find the words….
I don’t really want to talk more about it.
My uncle and aunt became my new parents. My real parents. When I say father and mother now, I am referring to them — they are the people I love. I also consider their son — my cousin — to be my older brother. When I moved to their place, I was still so insecure that I would lock myself in my room and refuse to come out. But I eventually began playing football with my brother, and through the game I began to make friends. At my elementary school, we would play during the lunch break. There was a football club there for boys only, but because of my brother I was allowed to play. I had short hair, I looked like a little boy, so the teachers and parents began calling me “Tomboy.”
“Hey, look at Tomboy, she is playing so well!”
That memory still makes me smile.
I loved football because it allowed me to express myself and get attention. And at that time, after my parents’ divorce, I needed that. I also loved football because you are always on a team. You win together, you lose together.
No matter what happens, you are not alone.
By the time I was 12 years old, I had reached such a high level that I made it to that training camp in Beijing.
What made the school so scary was that I was several years younger than everybody else. I was shy. I missed my parents and my brother. The school was also far outside the city, so we just stayed at the camp all the time. And the schedule was brutal.
The coach would wake us up at 7 a.m. We would eat breakfast at 7.30, then study from 8:00 till noon. We had lunch and took a break until three. Then we would train for two hours until dinner, and then study from 7.30 to 9 p.m. I spent about six months at that school.
I know it doesn’t sound like much, but trust me … it felt like a lifetime.
When I got out, I just wanted to play football with a smile on my face. That was not easy. I don’t know why, but people around me have always tried to push me down, to crush my hopes, to tell me everything that I couldn’t do. Even my coaches have done this. “Oh, she’s not very smart,” they would say. “She has no positional sense. She doesn’t even keep her eyes on the ball.”
They were saying that I had no talent for football at all. After a while, I felt almost as if I didn’t.
None of this is normal in China. Teachers and coaches have high expectations, but they do not treat kids like this. I felt like they just did it to me. I don’t know why. It happened even with my two most important coaches, who I now get along with fine. One of them discovered me when I played with the boys at elementary school. He was always telling me that I didn’t use my head enough on the pitch. The other one was the coach on my middle school team.
And he was the harshest of them all.
He was always trying to get a reaction from me. One time when I was 13 years old, I had played a really good game and came off the pitch hoping for a bit of praise. But he just gave me this stream of criticism. I felt so unfairly treated. Later that night I cried, completely crushed. Luckily, a teammate noticed that I was sad and told the coach. I guess he became worried, because not long after he told me, “Listen, you actually played pretty well in that game….”
They were saying that I had no talent for football at all. After a while, I felt almost as if I didn’t.
All those negative voices stayed in my head. They caused me a lot of doubt. But they also made we want to prove myself to people — again and again.
In January 2013, when I was 17 years old, I was called up to the senior national team for the first time. I went to a training camp ahead of the Four Nations Tournament. I had no self-confidence at all. But the coach told me to believe in myself. He said that the team really needed a player like me. They needed me! I had to double-check that I had heard him right.
Me? Are you sure? Can I really do it?
I began playing well in training. For our first game at the Four Nations, against Canada, I was on the bench. With about 30 minutes left and the score 0–0, the coach told me to get changed. I was so nervous that I almost begged him not to. Noooo! Don’t call on me!
My anxiety showed. I was running all over the pitch, not thinking, just trying to catch my breath. I hardly touched the ball. About 20 minutes later, the coach took me off!
Coming off when you have been brought on in the same game does not happen often in football. It usually means that you have screwed up. We lost 1–0. After the game, I just went back to the hotel, took a shower and fell asleep. I was so embarrassed. The only positive was that I wouldn’t have to tell my family about it.
Everyone had already seen it — the game had been live on national television.
And when you’re in China, that means quite a lot of people have their eyes on you.
This time though, there was no criticism. People were actually supporting me. They were like, “Come on, it’s O.K. It was your first game.” The coach said he would keep faith in me. Later that year I went with my club, Wuhan Ladies, to prepare for the National Games of China. We travelled to South Korea to play some friendlies, and I must have played well because a coach there saw me and said he wanted to sign me. I was so excited that a coach from another country thought I was good.
So after the games, I signed with Gumi Sportstoto in South Korea. I was voted the player of the year after my first season. I was actually playing for three teams at once: my new club, and the Chinese national team and the youth national team. It was crazy. I was flying back and forth between China and South Korea, in and out of training camps. And I was … happy. I was so busy that I didn’t have time to think about all the things that upset me. I felt valuable. I felt recognised.
Perhaps I had a bit of talent after all.
But playing for three teams had a downside. Because of the heavy workload, my body broke down. I fractured my left ankle. I told my club team that I did not want surgery, because I didn’t want to face the long recovery process alone. I was living alone in South Korea and did not know the language. But the club had signed me up for another season and wanted me to have the surgery. So in the end, I did it — alone. I went through rehabilitation — alone. It was so difficult having to make all these big decisions on my own.
When I look at the pictures from that time, I can see how sad I was.
I felt valuable. I felt recognised. Perhaps I had a bit of talent after all.
I soon went back to play for Dalian Quanjian, a club team in China. It was good to be home. My time in South Korea had made me realise how tough it is to go to another country.
But playing in Korea did not compare to moving to Europe. Going to France was like turning the world upside down. I had to relearn everything, like a newborn baby.
It happened last year, when I left the Chinese league to sign with Paris Saint-Germain.
Once more I was leaving home.
Once more I had to say goodbye.
You have to understand that China and France differ in a very profound way. It’s not just the food and the language. In China, we do things in groups. We live collectively. I was always with my teammates there, so whenever I had a problem there were people around me to help. But in Paris, you go to your club, train and go home. It’s like going to work. It’s a far more independent way of living. And so whenever I had a problem in Paris, I was alone. I spoke little English. I certainly spoke no French. Quite often, I was just lost.
Once more I was leaving home. Once more I had to say goodbye.
But I didn’t want to bother people. I didn’t want to complain. There is no use in that.
You have to deal with your problems on your own.
It led to a lot of despair. I would video chat with my parents, and there would be moments when I wanted to cry. But I didn’t want them to see me like that, and so I’d lie to them and say, “Sorry I have to go!” Then I’d shut down the computer. Humiliation avoided.
Everything just becomes easier once I am playing football. Although Paris has helped me grow as a person, many things are still hard, like communicating with my teammates. But out on the pitch we all understand each other. Once I am out there, I know what to do. I feel no stress. I can forget my problems.
Once I am out there, I can escape.
I can still hear voices saying that I have no talent. It still motivates me to prove them wrong.
There is a World Cup coming up now. People in China always talk about the team that made the World Cup final in 1999, and my dream is that we will do even better and become world champions. It won’t be easy, we have a lot of work to do. But we know what people expect of us. This is our big chance to show the world what we can do.
Until then, I hope that you now understand a bit better who I am. And if you plan to follow our games this summer, I’d like to think that we will in some way meet again in France.
That way, I won’t have to end this article with another goodbye.
Thank you for listening to my story.
I hope to see you soon.