GameChangers: Wang Shuang – From Paris pioneer to hero of Wuhan
Beijing: From taking on the world in 2019 to being confined to her apartment in 2020, Wang Shuang has experienced ups and downs that even a player blessed with her vision couldn’t have seen coming.
But despite missing their biggest international matches of the year during a two-month lockdown, China PR’s playmaker will still end 2020 as a champion.
In the latest edition of the-AFC.com’s GameChangers series, China’s star midfielder opens up on leading her city to a priceless league title, and what she learned from being the only Chinese player in one of the world’s biggest leagues.
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As May became June 2019, Wang Shuang had the world at her feet.
The biggest name in Chinese women’s football and the reigning AFC Women’s Player of the Year, she was preparing to play a key role at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, a country she then called home following a highly publicised move to Paris Saint-Germain.
But, just eight short months later, Paris had been left behind for her home city of Wuhan, with the bright lights of the UEFA Women’s Champions League replaced by the lights of surrounding apartment buildings.
In late January, and with Wuhan set to play host to the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread across the city, and although the competition was shifted 8,000 kilometres south to Sydney, Australia, Wang would not be moving with it.
Overnight, the big, wide world of international football slipped out of reach as she and other Wuhan-based internationals were confined to their homes for weeks on end, leaving the Chinese women’s national team without their artist-in-residence, and Wang without access to her canvas.
“I felt that we had been so well prepared, but because of the epidemic, I could not join and fight with the team,” said Wang.
Wang Shuang, the star player of China women's national team, is stuck in Wuhan, her hometown, and would miss the Olympic qualifying moved to Australia. Since it is not possible to find a football pitch for self-training, she went to the rooftop to play with her brother. pic.twitter.com/ebsn8tuM4K— Titan Sports Plus (@titan_plus) February 1, 2020
“At that time, I could feel that the coaches were also upset about the situation. It was even more difficult for them than the players because they had put in a lot of effort to improve us, but then there were players who could not join. That was really challenging.
“The coach and my teammates contacted me quite often (from Australia) and we encouraged each other. At that time, my mood was low, but I still hoped that my teammates could stand on the stage in a foreign country and make up for our regret that we were unable to compete.”
It wasn’t just Wang who had to overcome difficult circumstances. Even the Chinese players who did travel to Australia had to wait out a week-long quarantine in Brisbane, arriving for the first game against Thailand having been unable to properly train in over two weeks.
Despite those complications, the Steel Roses not only defeated the Thais 6-1, but went undefeated throughout the tournament, which included an outstanding performance in a 1-1 draw against high-flying group hosts Australia, which set up a final play-off against Korea Republic.
“Nobody knows how hard it was,” declared Wang. “Only those who were experiencing those challenges do.
“At that moment, the COVID-19 pandemic was getting really serious in China. Being in a foreign country, facing such an important competition, every member of the team was bound together. We were more united than ever.
“We overcome all difficulties in that situation, and we also demonstrated our strong spiritual power through our performance in every match. I am proud of my team.”
After two months in lockdown, and 77 long days separated from her teammates, Wang would once again join the Chinese women’s national team, for training, in April.
By the end of the year she would be receiving a Chinese Women’s Super League winners’ medal.
Most poignantly, she would do it in the colours of Wuhan Jiangda, leading her local club to their first ever Chinese Women’s Super League title, contributing four goals and many more assists, and playing a starring role in a 4-0 demolition of defending champions Jiangsu Suning in the final.
It was a triumphant way to end a year of unprecedented challenges, but even Wang’s crowning achievement of 2020 didn’t come easily.
“I was injured (at the tournament bubble) in Kunming before the league started,” said Wang.
“It was an ankle injury, not serious, but it still took time to recover, I had to rest for half of the month. Plus, because of the pandemic, there was not much effective, systematic training for me this year. So, when the league started I felt quite stressed.
“But the national team coach team came to watch the league and coach Jia (Xiuquan) encouraged me and helped me reduce my stress after I got injured, and slowly, after we arrived the competition venue, the pain was alleviated."
“This championship means a lot to me. Since I was a child, I have envied other teams who have won the championship for their provinces in the national competitions. Over the years, the Wuhan team has not won many.
“In fact, in the last generation of women’s football, the Wuhan team has never won a championship. So, I always hoped that I could win the championship for the team of my hometown.
“Wuhan had been seriously affected by the epidemic this year, so I really wanted to win this championship and win honour for my hometown.”
While the barriers thrown up by the early months of 2020 were a part of the reason the league title meant so much, there was a second element which added to its importance for Wang.
The move to Paris – which came in August 2018; four months after a string of top performances at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and three months before she became the first Chinese woman in over a decade to be crowned Asia’s top player – was seen as a quantum leap for Wang, but she was back in Wuhan less than a year later.
Her stint at PSG wasn’t without success. She scored seven times in 18 league matches and became the first Chinese player to score in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, but adapting to her new life off the pitch proved more difficult.
The only Chinese player in the league, her inability to speak the local language gave her a feeling of isolation which only really left once she returned to her homeland.
“Yes, I am happier now,” declared Wang. “When I was in France, I could not really understand my teammates and coaches during training and matches.
“All I could do was to give 200 per cent of my effort, and try hard to figure out their thoughts. Football is a team sport and obviously communication is a significant part of it, especially on the pitch, but I can now communicate more with my teammates and head coach. It made everything easier because I can just express my ideas any time now. I think it is necessary.
“Looking back on my experience in France, I would say that it was quite successful, to me. Everyone saw my efforts and my achievements through the statistics. It was not easy to adapt to the new environment, but I didn’t do badly. I played as well as I can, so I am satisfied with my performance.
“After all, this is all just an experience and a part of the process in my football career. The experience in France was one of my career goals. After one goal is achieved, it was time to start working hard for the next goal.”
It’s time to say good-bye.— Wangshuang (@wangshuang7) July 6, 2019
It has been a wonderful year which was full of surprises and challenges, though sometimes it was a little hard.
Paris has been part of my life.Merci.❤️@PSG_Feminines @PSG_inside
Wang knows her departure from one of Europe’s big clubs means she is less frequently in the international spotlight, but the player who once wrote about her severe lack of confidence during her formative footballing years now places more value on her inner voice, rather than external views.
“It is quite realistic and normal that, after I returned to China, the public may pay less attention to me than when I was in Paris,” she admitted.
“It is clear that I'm off the top stage of global women's football. Currently, I have less stress and my life is more comfortable."
“But If you ask about improvement; I think it's more about self-awareness. Now I care more about my own feelings and real progress, rather than the public evaluation of me.
“As a professional player, self-awareness is always important. We should be firm in trusting ourselves and not be too influenced by the comments of others.”
With a string of individual achievements under her belt, and recent team success at club level, international success with China PR remains the great unfulfilled ambition of one of Asia’s great modern players, who - for the first time since making her debut as a teenager in 2013 - will soon complete an entire calendar year without playing for her national team.
The next major challenge for China PR is the long-delayed final Tokyo Olympic qualifying play-off against Korea Republic – “The most important thing is preparing for the Qualifiers, after that I will think about the Olympics themselves” – but Wang’s long-term aim is winning international silverware.
Once the undisputed powerhouse of the Asian women’s game, the Steel Roses are closing in on 15 years without a major trophy, but with promising steps taken in the past two years, Wang believes a return to the nation’s glory days, and a crowning career achievement, is achievable.
“We reached the final match in Asian Games 2018 (in Indonesia) under the leadership of our head coach Jia, that’s also the highest stage in Asia,” she said.
“We were that close to becoming the champions, and this year we played really well in the Olympic Qualifiers, especially the match against Australia who are the top team in Asia."
NATIONAL TEAM | Jia Xiuquan revealed today a 26-name list for the training sessions next month!— China Women's Football - 中国女足 (@CHNWNT) October 23, 2020
China will train at the Xianghe National Football Training Base from November 3 to December 3 in preparation for the Olympic Playoff against South Korea early in 2021. #SteelRoses pic.twitter.com/RX1wVZf8C0
“So, I am confident about our future, as long as we keep working hard and moving in the right direction, it won’t be impossible for the Chinese women’s football team to return to the number one spot in Asia.
“This is not something that can be achieved only by the contribution and hard work of our generation, it requires the efforts of everyone, including younger generations.”
Whether those dreams are realised remains a question for another, less volatile, year, but no matter what unexpected twist her career throws at her next, Wang Shuang can look back on 2020 as a year with a traumatic beginning, but triumphant finale.
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