|Ma Fenhua (L) plays in a match at Lingwu No.2 Middle School in Lingwu city, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, June 13, 2019. [Xinhua/Lu Ying]|
On the playground on a hot summer's day, Ma Fenhua, 15, was playing in a football match, running hard and cheering every time her team scored.
"I had never imagined this in my first eight years living in the mountains, and I even had no idea what a football was back then," Ma said.
Ma was born in Jingyuan county, a formerly impoverished mountainous area in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and moved 300 miles away to live in Lingwu City with her family in 2012.
Lingwu, which has 41 football-playing schools, is where Ma's football dream began. "I saw a real football pitch the first year I moved here. It was so large and so flat, totally unlike anything in my village," Ma said.
While many girls of her age took up singing or dancing, Ma always preferred football, but her family were against her new hobby.
"She gets tanned and sometimes cries because of injuries or tiredness from all the training," said Bai Hongyan, Ma's sister. "We tried to persuade her to stop playing football, but we failed."
In 2017, Ma's dedication to her training was rewarded when she was one of 24 young footballers chosen to receive a government scholarship to travel to Britain for a 15-day training camp.
"I couldn't believe my ears upon hearing the news," Ma said. "I had never travelled anywhere even by train, let alone going abroad on an aeroplane."
During her time in the U.K., Ma visited Brooke House College, which features a dedicated football academy, and Stoke City Football Club, where she was able to watch a Premier League match for the first time. "It still feels so unbelievable," Ma smiled.
Ma's trip drove her to become even more determined to play football, and she later joined the women's football team in her middle school, receiving more systematic training and playing matches just like a professional.
Her coach Ding Xin designed a two-hour training session to take place every afternoon, teaching Ma and teammates how to dribble, pass and trap the ball, and instructing them how to defend and shoot.
"I'm a quick-tempered man, but I try to be soft when watching them practice," Ding said. "I feel at loss what to do when I see the girls cry."
"My girls are making quick progress, and they have won many prizes," Ding said, adding that several of his players have gained national-level athletic certificates.
Ma's future plans are inextricably linked with her dream of playing her favorite sport. "Football must be an indispensable part of my junior and senior school years, and if I'm admitted to a college, football must play a key role there too.
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