by Peter STEBBINGS (AFP)
SUZHOU, CHINA – Wang Shuang (picture; left) was locked down and left kicking a ball on a rooftop in the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan when China’s women’s football team began their Olympic qualification campaign 14 months ago.
But the midfielder was hailed as the saviour of Chinese football after hitting a classy winner in extra time on Tuesday in Suzhou to send them to this summer’s Tokyo Games.
Wang’s strike in a 4-3 aggregate win over South Korea, having also scored the winner with a penalty in the first leg, embellished her reputation as the face of Chinese women’s football. The opposition coach called her “world-class”.
More than that, it was a badly needed boost at a time when China’s footballing reputation has taken a major hit with the financial collapse of men’s Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu FC.
“Thank you Miss Wang Shuang! You not only helped the Chinese women’s team get an Olympic ticket, you saved the currently sluggish Chinese football!” renowned journalist Ma Dexing wrote.
Wang is still only 26 but it is another chapter in an eventful life that was upended by the divorce of her parents when she was five and saw her consumed by loneliness as a child footballer trying to make it far away from her family.
Since turning professional and then making her China debut in 2013 there have been successful stints abroad, first in South Korea and with Paris Saint-Germain in 2018-2019.
After scoring on her debut for PSG, French newspaper Le Parisien declared: “Wang Shuang has already conquered Paris.”
She scored eight goals and made seven assists in 27 games for the French team, but was homesick and drawn back to Wuhan.
She found herself stranded there when coronavirus emerged in the city and it was placed under lockdown — the world’s first — in January 2020.
It meant China had to conduct the bulk of their Olympic qualifying campaign without their star player, who was meanwhile videoed on top of a building firing balls against a wall to keep fit.
“I thought a lot during that time,” Wang said of those long 76 days marooned in Wuhan.
When the domestic league belatedly kicked off in a virus-secure “bubble”, Wang helped her local team win the Chinese championship.
“The title belongs to the city of Wuhan,” she said.
“It has not been easy on any of us.”
Alone and in tears
As a little girl, football was an escape for Wang.
After her parents divorced and left Wuhan, a young Wang was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, whom she regards as her mother and father.
“I loved football because it allowed me to express myself and get attention,” she told The Players’ Tribune website in 2019.
“And at that time, after my parents’ divorce, I needed that.”
As a young player of obvious promise, Wang was enrolled at a national training school in Beijing, more than 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) away from Wuhan.
Once, when she was just 12, she travelled to the Chinese capital alone on a sleeper train. She cried all night.
She was in tears too at the final whistle on Tuesday — this time in joy — after which South Korea’s coach Colin Bell described Wang as “world-class” and “very, very dangerous”.
“Those opportunities, if they’re gifted, she’ll take them,” said the Englishman.