Female football envoys pass torch to next generation of Chinese athletes

By Qi Xijia Source:Global Times Published: 2016-6-1 18:23:01

Two decades ago, soccer's glass ceiling was kicked open with the first-ever Women's World Cup, held in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Twelve teams participated in that historic event, which was attended by over 60,000 people in the stadium.

Twenty decades later, two members from that champion team, former Olympic gold medalist Lauren Gregg and women's soccer coach Linda Hamilton, are visiting China again to share their stories and empower Chinese girls to take up the internationally beloved sport of soccer (known as football in Europe).

Both Gregg and Hamilton are participating in a program, called Sports Envoy. As envoys, they will be traveling overseas to participate in sports exchanges, "soccer diplomacy" and conduct sports clinics for athletically inclined youngsters.

During their stop in Shanghai, Gregg and Hamilton hosted an on-field training session with the Shanghai University of Sport's women's soccer team and joined a U11 soccer match at Shanghai Jinshajiang Primary School. There they were joined by Sun Wen, the famous former Chinese female soccer player who won FIFA Female Player of the Century in 2000.

All the wrong places

Gregg is a two-time champion of the 1999 and 1991 Women's World Cups with the US Women's National Team. She went on to serve as an assistant coach for the US Women's National Team, leading them to victory during the Women's World Cup in China.

Hamilton played in 82 international matches with the US Women's National Team and helped the team win World Cup in 1991 and a bronze in 1995. After 1995 she retired as a player but continued to coach.

However, at the beginnings of their respective careers not many opportunities were given to the two girls. Gregg grew up playing with her brother in their backyard. Her grandfather used to worry that she would "develop muscles in all the wrong places." Hamilton also got her start playing with a boys' team at age 8 through 13.

The 1991 World Cup was a turning point for both the then-young women. "China held a spectacular event in Guangzhou. Nobody else cared what we were doing, but we did. We loved what we were doing and we founded a platform to show the world what women's soccer could be," said Gregg.

"We were motivated, we were excited," added Hamilton. "Things were coming. We didn't know what or why, but we were really fortunate to be there at the beginning. I don't know if there was any other place in the world that the World Cup could have been held where it was as successful as in China."

The winning of the US national team made other countries take notice and helped to promote the sport internationally.

"Football, or soccer, is a European game. We have kind of stolen that from them. But because of that, it forced other countries to pay attention. They hadn't really wanted to, but now we have set a standard for what woman's football can be," said Gregg.

Champions within

Things have changed since 1991, with women's soccer growing in both participation and spectators.

"We grew up without role models," said Gregg. "Now as role models, we hopefully can hold a torch for the new generation. We might not have had everything we needed back then, but we loved what we did and hope to pave the way for others."

After winning the World Cup in 1999, Gregg helped launch the first-ever professional soccer league for women in the United States, WUSA. Several Chinese players eventually joined her new league, including Sun Wen, who has become Gregg's longtime friend.

Gregg also coauthored a best-selling inspirational book, The Champion Within, a chronology of the rise of the US Women's National Team.

"At the participation level, there are more girls than boys in the US playing soccer now. Women can now actually earn a living as an athlete in our country. We have hundreds of scholarships at many wonderful universities with women's soccer teams," said Gregg. "Back when I was in the World Cup, I only made $15 per day," added Hamilton.

Gregg has two adopted daughters, Meilin, age 14, and Meili, age 9. Both are from China and both are now active soccer players.

Women's World Cup winners Linda Hamilton (left) and Lauren Gregg host a training session with the women's soccer team of Shanghai University of Sport.


Hamilton and famous Chinese soccer player Sun Wen show a photo when they were young players. Photos: Courtesy of the US Consulate General in Shanghai

Newspaper headline: Soccer diplomacy

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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