Overseas careers a path for enhancing women’s soccer
Published: Sep 06, 2023 10:53 PM

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

When China's women's national soccer team gathered for boot camp on Saturday to prepare for the coming Hangzhou Asian Games in September, it was announced that some of the players may miss the multi-sport event as they have just kicked off their overseas careers.

As the host of the Asian Games, China will strive to bring the trophy home again following its last triumph in 1998. However, the tougher test looms in October when China will participate in the Olympic Qualifying tournament to fight for a berth for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. 

Having been knocked out of the group stage in the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, China is desperate to shrug off failure. However, winning the Asian title will not paper over the gaps between Team China and the European heavyweights. 

The reality check of losing 1-6 to European champions England in the World Cup makes it crystal clear that more Chinese players have to venture out of the domestic league should the team want to improve capability.

The gap between China and some other strong teams was glaring, exposed in the World Cup, and an overseas career will help Chinese players keep up with the technical and tactical development of global women's soccer.

China's women's soccer legend Sun Wen, who won Female Player of the Century along with Michelle Akers of the US in 2000, said going to European leagues allows Chinese players to experience a higher level of techniques, physical challenges and competition.

Yang Lina, who is a regular starter with the Spanish top-tier league club Levante Las Planas, said she has been improving every day since going to Europe.

"In the Chinese league, you may walk a lot in a match. But in Europe, you have to find your teammate as soon as you get the ball. Passing precisely against physical contact is crucial," said Yang, adding that she has become more composed against tough adversaries. 

Zhang Linyan, a redeeming feature of China's disappointing run in the World Cup, showcased significant progress after a season in the Swiss league. She was instrumental in the victory against Haiti, the only win for China in the global soccer showpiece, and was confident in possessing the ball against tough tackling. 

It's a bit of a pity that the 22-year-old Zhang, who was named the Swiss Women's Super League Player of the Year last season, returned to the domestic league in August as some foreign clubs reportedly failed to sign her over concerns of her international duties. 

Yet good news came after the World Cup as defender Li Mengwen arrived at the English Brighton & Hove Albion in September to prepare for the upcoming Women's Super League 2023/24 season that kicks off on October 1.

The 28-year-old left-back, who featured in the three World Cup group games for China, joins the Seagulls after a season-long loan spell in France with Paris Saint-Germain last season.

Tang Jiali will also continue her overseas career as she has been loaned to the Spanish side Levante Las Planas. It is the third overseas stint for the 28-year-old attacking midfielder from Shanghai Shengli after Tottenham Hotspur Women's and Madrid CFF.

Meanwhile, 26-year-old striker Wu Chengshu has signed for two years with French club Dijon and will play in the French top division league that kicks off on September 16.

Chinese Football Association (CFA) also lent a hand in supporting Chinese players securing a stint abroad. 

According to the Dijon club, the arrival of Wu in Dijon was facilitated by the CFA, Jiangsu provincial soccer governing body and the coach of the China national team Shui Qingxia.

To help Chinese women players adapt to the foreign club, the CFA has set up a global network of assistants. The initiative is designed to employ a personal assistant for every Chinese player overseas, helping them overcome language barriers and running errands. 

Yan Xinyi, assistant of striker Wang Shuang who plays for Racing Louisville FC in the US, said her role is more like a friend of the player.

"I will help Wang with medical checkups, applying for a bank account and insurance and communicating with the club," said Yan. 

The move spared players of the trouble of handling errands when their language skills may not be good enough at the beginning of an overseas stint and allows them to focus on training.