GameChangers: Zhao Yujie’s life lessons
Tallahassee: ‘Win or learn’ is a maxim which has been adopted by athletes and coaches the world over. Zhao Yujie does both.
In the second edition of GameChangers – the weekly series celebrating great stories from the women’s game in Asia – we profile the Chinese youngster who became an American national champion and is just getting started.
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It was the Asian football triumph that few in the continent noticed.
In December 2018, in front of a crowd of over 12,000 and a countrywide television audience, the Florida State University Seminoles overcame US college soccer’s 21-time champions, the North Carolina Tar Heels, to win the women’s national title for just the second time in their history.
Among the winners was Zhao Yujie, a 19-year-old attacking midfielder from Shanghai, who, only four months earlier, had appeared for China PR at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France.
With only two previous trips to America under her belt – both for football, and both with precious little interaction with locals – Zhao overcame a substantial lifestyle change to hit the ground running, accruing seven goals and five assists in 23 matches, and winning the ACC Freshman of the Year Award.
All achieved while completing full-time studies, in English.
“As a student here, and also as a student athlete, you have a busy schedule and you have to combine your study and your games,” she told the-AFC.com from Tallahassee.
“If we have an away game we travel from Thursday until Sunday, so in between you don’t go to class at all, and how you balance the classes you missed becomes super hard, especially for me as a foreigner.
“Sometimes you don’t have your own time. All you do is study, study, study, practice, game, practice, game. Before I came here, I was a student, but in the Chinese athlete system we don’t study that much. As athletes we were more focused on the practice part.
“This was the first time I had been like a normal student. I was kind of proud of that, but at the same time, it’s really hard to schedule.”
She may still be young enough to be a student, but Zhao, 21, is a seasoned veteran when it comes to the world of international football. The attacking playmaker was representing China as far back as the AFC U-13 Regional Girls Football Tournament in 2012, going on to wear the national shirt at all age levels before standing out at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, shortly after turning 19, two years ago.
With those credentials, she could easily have advanced to the professional ranks in her home country, but she took the road less travelled, particularly by Chinese players, combining highlight reels learning with higher learning in the unique world of top level college soccer.
“I have a couple of friends in China and some study in the United States, and they were helping me to collect the data on all the colleges” said Zhao, recalling how she joined one of America’s best teams on a full scholarship.
“They were asking me which college I wanted to go to, but I had never been to any of the colleges, so I didn’t know. They said, 'Maybe we should just send emails to different colleges with your video highlights and see what they think.'
"Then we sent the emails and (Florida State) responded.
“Actually, there were a couple more that responded, but I didn’t think they really wanted me, or wanted to offer me a scholarship. My coach (Mark Krikorian) watched my games and he said 'wow, I want this player.’”
Despite her limited experience with American life, Zhao managed to adapt, not only to her new surroundings, but to a playing squad littered with the type of international talent most professional clubs could only dream of.
The team that won the 2018 national title included Deyna Castellanos – the Venezuelan who was a fiercely debated FIFA World Player of the Year nominee as a 17-year-old, and who now has 1.4 million Instagram followers and a professional contract at Atlético Madrid – and Natalia Kuikka, a 50-cap international for Finland, as well as additional senior national team players from Canada and Costa Rica.
But while talented female footballers from those countries are accustomed to moving abroad to further their careers, Zhao’s move to the US makes her a rarity among Chinese players.
All of her U-20 World Cup teammates were registered to local clubs, and the only foreign-based player in the Steel Roses’ 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup squad – Paris Saint-Germain’s Wang Shuang – returned to play for Wuhan Ladies soon after the tournament.
Immersion in a foreign football team and educational institution gives Zhao something unique in the Chinese game, and she believes there are clear differences, especially off the pitch, in the US system.
“I think on the personality side, Americans, and especially my teammates, are more passionate, and they talk a lot,” she laughed.
“We’ll have some sort of party every year, like a Halloween party or just some random parties where we will come together and just have fun and listen to music. I’ve never attended those kinds of parties back in China."
"They live more like normal people, when they’re not in soccer or study. We live really independently.
“Sometimes you can say it’s kind of lonely. When we have fun, we have a lot of fun together, but when we go home, we’re just by ourselves. In China everyone will be together all the time.”
Far from being a fish out of water, Zhao has starred for the Seminoles, who were knocked out at the quarter-final stage of their title defence in 2019.
Another five goals and six assists in 24 games that season helped her earn ACC All-First Team selection, and she received a maiden call-up to the Chinese senior national team earlier that year – “I was away for about a month, so my head coach was kind of worried about my academic (situation)," she added.
For reasons she doesn’t fully comprehend, she has also become popular with Florida State fans, and the distinctive atmosphere of college soccer matches are something Zhao has grown to enjoy, even if it brings distinctly different emotions to representing her country.
“It’s a different self-identity,” she explained. “When we played at the U-20 World Cup, I played as a Chinese player. I represented my country. Here, I’m an international Florida State University player."
"Sometimes, there is a motivation for me to represent my university. I want to prove that, as an Asian player from China, I can also play strong.
“I don’t know why, but all the fans know my name and during the game they call my name so loud. At our home games you can see, it’s packed. Everywhere, there are people. In the parking area people sit in their cars and watch our games. It’s different.
“I am more proud to represent my country, but here I’ll be so hyped (before games), because there are so many people here to support us, as Florida State students.”
With her football progressing well, and Tallahassee feeling increasingly like a home away from home, 2020 should have been a year to remember for a player becoming one of the more experienced members of the Florida State side, but the spread of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the college sport calendar.
As a Chinese national living in Florida, now one of the world’s hardest hit coronavirus hotspots, Zhao has had a unique vantage point on the pandemic, but she is determined to keep moving forward, even if her team isn’t playing games.
“(At first) I was kind of worried about (my family in China), so I sent multiple facemasks to them,” she recalled.
“I don’t know if they used them or not, but after the pandemic in China, it happened in the United States. My mum and dad just sent the masks back to me. They said they didn’t need them anymore. 'You need them more than us'.
“They just cancelled the national championship because there are so many leagues that can’t start the games. We don’t have any national games, but in our area – the ACC – we still have our games, probably like six games total. Everyone wants to play a lot of games and win the national championship, but it’s an unfortunate situation, and it’s kind of sad to only play six games.
“Maybe for the experience part – you will lose a lot of good games – but for development, maybe I can develop in a different way. Like my body, or my speed. The game experience – yes, I've lost it, but in other parts, I won’t.”
Without football to occupy her, Zhao’s online summer classes have kept her busy, but she also spent time considering the possible destinations for her future career as a professional, with all options still on the table.
“I do want to play abroad, but I’m not sure which country I want to play in right now,” she declared. “We had (Castellanos) from Venezuela (at Florida State), and she plays in Spain now. I will probably go back to China, just for a couple of years, because I miss my family, but I will play pro.”
For now, Zhao just wants to get back on the pitch.
She will finally do so in September – “if everything goes right” – but whatever the footballing world offers her, the Seminole from Shanghai believes her time at Florida State University will continue to pay dividends long after the memories of the 2018 national championship have faded.
“You could just go and find a job right now, but learning is a personal,” she declared.
“Pursuing knowledge – that’s really important for your whole life. That’s one of the reasons I came here. That’s what will impact my life.”
Photos: Florida State University, AFP, AFC
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