|Pubu Droma plays football. [Xinhua]|
BEIJING, Nov. 8 (Xinhua) — Wearing the captain's armband, Pubu Droma led the football team of Nankai University's Tourism School onto the pitch to loud cheers, heads high, ready for their opening match against the Law School in the 2019 Nankai University Freshman Cup.
Racing through the left flank, Pubu received a pass from a teammate in the dying minutes and danced through the defense, slotting home after a dizzying Marseille turn. 1-0!
Those were the scenes Pubu had in her head the night before the match. But they never happened.
Because she is a girl.
"You can't play," That was what referee Li Long said to Pubu when he was shocked to find a girl warming up alongside the pitch, fully equipped. "At least not this match."
"Why?!" Disbelief, bewilderment and anger overwhelmed Pubu, and that was the only word she could let out at that moment, almost in tears.
Never before had a girl played in the Nankai University Freshman Cup.
Li tried to explain to Pubu his reasoning in this unprecedented situation, about how other teams might feel about competing against a girl, and that their Law School opponents refused to let her on.
"But that's your fault. It is not written in the rules that girls are not allowed to participate. It's a Freshman Cup, not Fresh-MAN Cup," Pubu continued her complaint after the match, which her side lost, with her relegated to cheering and shouting out instructions from the sidelines.
"I was a bench player back in high school. When I saw her stay on the sideline of the pitch to assume her duty as captain, I kind of empathized with her. I could feel her sheer love for football," Li recalled.
After the match, Li brought the issue to the university's football club, which organized the tournament and formulated its regulations, and they decided to gather all heads of the teams and let them vote to decide whether Pubu could take part in subsequent rounds.
An agonizing wait began.
Be the First
Pubu knows well that football is not a popular sport among girls.
"My family live in the old neighborhood of Lhasa. I used to play with a bunch of kids, but when it came to football, few girls played," the Tibet native recalled.
In fact, football was unfamiliar even to her until 2010, when Luis Suarez's handball saved Uruguay from the brink of elimination in that year's FIFA World Cup quarterfinal.
At that time, she was crowded in front of the TV in her neighbor's house with some older boys, fascinated by the breathtaking moments of drama on the small screen.
In that moment, she fell in love with the sport.
However, playing football was not looked on favorably by teachers in her middle school. During those years, her love was heard in the tinkle of crushed tin cans echoing in the hallways of her school and on the streets near her home, where she usually played with boys.
She did have some female companions, but most of them were forced to stop playing by their parents, who deemed football useless or harmful.
Pubu was lucky to have the understanding from her father, even though he didn't really know about the sport.
"I believe in and support her in whatever she chooses to do. She's a good girl with a pure heart," her father said.
As she grew, so did her skills and ambitions. She managed to put together a women's football team of eight members after graduating from middle school and, by chance, came to know Tse Deji, who later recommended her to coach Tse Tashi of local amateur club Alternative FC. With the help of both, Pubu and her friends joined the club as its first-ever women's team and had regular training under Tse Deji and Tse Tashi.
"When we first met, she was playing football with boys. Those boys were taller and stronger than her. My first impression was that she's very bold. Most of us see the ball coming and tend to dodge a little bit like this. But she's incredibly brave," Tse Deji said.
Finally on a women's team instead of having to play with boys, Pubu was happy enough, especially when she saw the team grow every year to contain 25 football-loving girls by the time she finished high school.
However, deep in her heart, she always wanted not only to play, but to compete, in a formal match, to show the girls "the love for sports is genderless."
And luckily, she was not alone.
"We were a bit afraid of making physical contact with her in our first training session, but that soon disappeared after we found her skills, technique and positioning were better than we had expected. And she was fast, often stealing balls from me," Pubu's teammate Daulet recalled his first impressions of the only girl on the team, whom he recommended as captain.
"She was always encouraging and stayed fully concentrated on the field, racing back immediately if we lost possession, so I believed she would be a good leader," Daulet added.
Fellow teammate Pubu Tsering was equally effusive about his team's new star. "Droma loves football, so do we. We share the same passion. It was so frustrating to see her denied the chance to play just minutes before the match, especially as she gathered us together the night before to discuss tactics for nearly an hour. We would definitely give her all our support to fight for what she deserved."
After waiting anxiously for a day, which seemed like a year, Pubu would eventually face the collective decision.
The vote took place online in a group chat. In order to play, Pubu needed at least seven favorable responses from the 13 participating teams.
"No matter what the result is, we hope Pubu can continue to love and enjoy football," Li Long said on behalf of the organizers after apologizing for their negligence on the gender issue beforehand.
For the next hour, Pubu could hardly do anything. She curled up in the chair in her dormitory, clutching her phone in her hand — every ringtone was a strike on her heart.
As messages jumped on the screen one after another with encouraging words, Pubu let out a long sigh and smiled, from the bottom of her heart. In the end, 10 of the 11 valid votes agreed.
"Let's play football together!" texted the captain that was about to embrace her delayed debut as the first-ever woman player in the tournament.
Usher in Change
The Tourism School did not make it out of their group, but Pubu became a celebrity on campus, as the one that pushed for a change in the century-old university, and the subject of a news story written by her friend Gan Yue, a student journalist for Nankai News.
"Droma's appearance triggered some controversy, and as her friend, I knew what she had been through and how she felt. So I wrote the story in the hope of letting more people know about the issue and giving Droma a chance to express her thoughts and feelings," Gan explained.
Following the story, Pubu received many friend requests from girls who shared the same love for football.
"There was one who had previously only watched matches before coming to Droma saying she wanted to play and experience football by herself on the pitch," Gan said.
Among all the requests was one from Liu Xueru, who wanted to establish a women's football team, but was unsure whether it was possible. Learning the experience of Pubu made her think that together they might be able to make it a reality.
"I tried to reach out to the teacher in charge several times and received mostly discouraging responses. I was doubtful," Liu said. "But Pubu always said it would work out. She just kept emphasizing it."
"She always said the same phrase that motivated me incredibly. Don't start, or don't stop."
Their persistence finally paid off two months later.
"We started with 50 girls. I was so happy." Pubu's voice suddenly went higher.
Taking the first step, Pubu went on her road of encouraging women's football back in Tibet during the winter vacation.
She wanted to host an amateur women's football tournament at her home high on the plateau for the first time.
"We were not very sure about the idea as it was in the middle of the pandemic. I told her that I would do everything possible to help," Tse Tashi said.
Difficulties were no strangers to Pubu, and never scared her away.
"I could revise the plan dozens of times. I could go to several venues a day. I don't care about that," she said.
The tournament was eventually staged in July with four participating teams. Another step taken.
When the 2020-21 school year began, another change took place. Advocated by Pubu, who now chairs the university's football club, the regulation for the Freshmen Cup was amended, encouraging girls to participate, and five signed up.
On October 30, Chen Shihan of the School of Mathematical Sciences scored a goal, the first-ever by a girl.
Pubu and Liu Xueru are now working together on applying for the university's "Dream Project," which, if successful, could provide financial aid for their team's operation.
The two also encouraged girls at three other universities in Tianjin to establish women's football teams.
"We will have an invitational event on November 28. Then, we will write a joint letter to the Football Association of Tianjin, asking them to launch a women's football league for university students," Pubu excitedly told Xinhua in a recent interview, picturing the future possibilities.
Step by step, Pubu heads firmly ahead, just like she does on the pitch, running fearlessly towards the goal, either in football jerseys or sometimes in one of her favorite T-shirts.
It reads "Where dreamers become doers."
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