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Playing soccer so they can study

By Tan Yingzi in Chongqing | China Daily | Updated: 2023-09-21 09:23

Members of the team train at the school. [Photo provided to China Daily]

At the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup held in France, Tan Siqi was one of the flag bearers at the opening match of the Chinese team.

"If they had not chosen to play soccer, they probably would have never had the opportunity to get a higher education," Sun told China Daily. "Soccer opens a new window for these girls in the remote mountains and changes their lives."

In 2013, Sun, a physical education teacher for 20 years, became headmaster of the Sanhe school. Situated deep in the mountains, the school had limited teaching resources, and most of its students were left-behind children who remained in their rural hometowns while their parents went to work in urban areas. In many cases, these children were taken care of by their extended families, usually by grandparents.

At that time, very few of those students could go to high school or university due to poor education resources and family finances. Girls faced even more barriers because of traditional ideas held by rural families that women should look after the family first.

To help more girls pursue an education, Sun decided to create a soccer team so that girls could have a chance to enter good schools based on their athletic prowess.

"Soccer is relatively cheap and easy to learn, which is suitable for those rural kids," he said.

He picked 20 girls from the fourth and fifth grades and offered them free training, clothing, meals and dorms at school.

With the team lacking professional guidance, the headmaster tried his best to recruit soccer coaches from the county sports bureau and middle schools to coach the team part time. During the summer vacation, friends of his from other parts of Chongqing who had soccer training experience would volunteer to coach the team.

In 2015, China launched a comprehensive program for soccer reform and development, and one of the goals was to achieve "a substantial increase in the population of youth soccer". This led to more Chinese schools setting up soccer programs to nurture young talent.

That same year, the Sanhe team won its first title while participating in the Chongqing Campus Soccer League and attracted the attention of some middle schools with soccer programs in the city.

Over the two years, the girls claimed four titles in Chongqing, including one at a national tournament and another at a national mixed-team competition.

Thanks to those achievements, the Sanhe school received more support from the government and the public to improve its training facilities.

"Every student at our school has a soccer lesson once a week," Sun said. "We have a school league, and every class has its own team."

In the past decade, Sanhe has trained about 200 female players, and one-third of them were selected to attend middle schools in Chongqing.

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