"May I join you guys on the field?", shouted Zhang Tong, a former player on the Chinese national women's football team, to a group of men playing football after work for fun. "Sure!" the amateur footballers shouted back. She was playing right midfield and made some accurate diagonal passes toward her fellow forward players before they completed promising shots on the goal.
Few of the men on the pitch, however, realized that this woman playing among them was a member of the winning team that took home the AFC Women's Asian Cup back in 2006.
Her shiny medal in her trophy room refreshes the memory for many football fans, men or women, as China was crowned the same title once again 16 years later after defeating South Korea on February 6.
Though she is no longer capable of running, dribbling, passing and shooting like she could on the pitch 16 years ago, her football story and experience lives on.
|Zhang Tong high fives a youth player during a training session on February 26, 2022 [People's Daily Online/Peng Yukai]|
"It was a long time ago, but the glory still remains in our hearts," said Zhang as she looks back to the championship journey in 2006. Having been benched during all three games during the group stage, Zhang was substituted during the semi-final and played a crucial role in the 1-0 win against DPRK. While people still have high expectations for the team, Zhang still remembers the stress that spread among the players and coaches before the final.
"The atmosphere in the team was really stressful," said Zhang. "Coach Ma Liangxing asked me if I was ready the day before the game, and I said yes even though I wasn't 100 percent ready." However, Zhang quickly adjusted herself and she was substituted in the 31st minute during the final against Australia, when China was then down by two goals.
"I was really pumped when I ran onto the field, and all the stress was gone." Playing as the central midfielder, Zhang kept the pressure on the opponent's defense, which helped China equalize the game in the second half, as well as eventually winning the penalty shoot-out.
|Photo taken on March 23, 2022, shows all the metals that Zhang Tong has won in her career. [People's Daily Online/Peng Yukai]|
"When you look back on what you've done, you still feel a sense of pride," said Zhang. "Playing for our national team and watching the national flag rise is the utmost honor for every professional football player, and winning the championship makes this glory even precious."
Start over from the Grassroot
After a 16-year professional career, Zhang decided to hang up her boots in 2012. However, life after retirement was not as easy as Zhang originally thought.
"(I was) really puzzled and confused. I didn't know what I could do or what I should do," said Zhang. Luckily, the uncertainty of being unemployed didn't last too long, and Zhang started working for a professional football club in Beijing. At the same time, Zhang also started to apply for coaching credentials to prepare for her coaching career.
"The reason why I applied for coaching credentials is because coaching is what I am aimed to do, and I hope I can utilize my past experience and pass them along to those younger players, especially to all the kids."
After working for a professional football club for a few years, Zhang gradually turned her focus to youth training. Eventually, she became the youth training director at Jujia Football Club, a club focuses on youth football training based in Daxing District in Beijing.
Compared to coaching players at other age levels, Zhang has a special fondness for coaching children. In her opinion, coaching children is challenging, yet interesting. "There are a lot of factors that you need to put into consideration before coaching a group of children, (such as) their physical and psychological conditions, as well as their level of understanding," said Zhang. However, Zhang also felt a sense of relief when the kids come up with some bizarre questions, which added some humor and laughter to her routine job.
|Zhang Tong consoles a youth player after a training session at a practice field on February 26, 2022. [People's Daily Online/Peng Yukai]|
One Step at a Time
With China having won the Women's Asian Cup again after 16 years, the expectations and enthusiasm for Chinese football has once again been ignited among the public. While people are curious about when China will have its next super football star, Zhang instead keeps calm about the vague future of Chinese football as well as youth football training.
"We need to take one step at a time," said Zhang. "The meaning of being a youth football coach is to guide our children to get involved in football, and we as coaches should teach them the right value instead of expecting them to reach a certain result. Throwing apart all the result, we must make sure that we are teaching the right things to our kids."
|Youth players in the middle of a training session at a practice pitch on February 26, 2022. [People's Daily Online/Peng Yukai]|
In terms of what she wants her students to achieve, the very first word that comes up to her mind is happiness. "I hope every one of the kids who come here to play football is happy, and this is what football is all about."
Having stepped away from the spotlight and applause for almost a decade, Zhang has never felt lonely about her current life. Instead, she holds a strong sense of responsibility. "I just want to live my everyday life," said Zhang. "Football is the greatest asset of my life, and I want to contribute all my effort to football at no matter how old I am."
(Source: People's Daily Online)
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