In the first-floor departure lounge at Wuhan Tianhe airport, China PR midfielder Pan Lina was giving her father a fond hug goodbye, her head resting tenderly on his shoulder. Her mother stood by their side, moon cake in hand, whispering words of encouragement in her ear: "Go out there and do your best. Don't get homesick - if you qualify for the semi-final in Shanghai you'll be back home in time for the mid-autumn festival."
This was the scene on 16 September, following China's 4-0
defeat by Brazil. The loss had pushed the tournament hosts down
into third place in Group D, leaving them with a make-or-break game
against New Zealand. Pan's parents had joined a number of other
mums and dads at the airport to bid their daughters a temporary
farewell and good luck in the big match.
A sizeable contingent of family members - including the parents of all 21 players in the squad - had already made the trip to Wuhan for China's opening match against Denmark on 12 September. The Steel Roses were under pressure to perform in their second appearance as tournament hosts. However, the players' tense expressions gave way to smiles of delight when they welcomed their families at Wuhan airport on the eve of the game.
"We haven't come here to put pressure on them, just the opposite in fact. We're here to take some of the pressure away," said Han Jianli, father of centre-forward Han Duan. "The girls were all hoping that we could come along. The only reason we're here is to help them get off to a flying start."
Mr Han's wish was fulfilled the next day when China made a winning start to the finals, beating Denmark 3-2 thanks to midfielder Song Xiaoli's late, long-range thunderbolt. Their relatives' cheers of encouragement worked wonders once more last Thursday when Marika Domanski-Lyfors' team held their nerve to beat New Zealand 2-0 in their final group fixture, which secured them second place behind Brazil and a quarter-final date with Norway.
The hosts may have lost out narrowly to the Norwegians but this
year's competition marked a first in Chinese women's
football for never before had the Chinese Football Association
allowed its players to spend time with their families during a
major tournament. The CFA even footed the travel costs so that all
of the players' parents could fly into Wuhan. The inspiration
behind this unprecedented move was Domanski-Lyfors, the team's
first foreign coach.
"Experience tells us that the players most need the comfort of their family members when they're under pressure," explained the Swede, who led her home nation to the Final at USA 2003. "Their encouragement can help settle the players down so that they're in the best possible frame of mind."
Support at hand
Although the positive effects of having family support close at hand during major tournaments are only just being felt in Chinese women's football, other countries have long taken a more relaxed approach. Reigning world champions Germany and 1999 winners USA, for instance, have both brought sizeable family contingents along to the tournament. Meanwhile, the England team, who reached the last eight unbeaten before losing to USA, had some 80 friends and family members supporting them and would spend a couple of hours with them each day.
The father of Kelly Smith, the team's top scorer, was among the party and the player's words suggested that his presence was an undoubted help. Speaking after England's commendable goalless draw with Germany in the first round, Smith said: "My Dad called me before the game to wish me luck. Now I can go back to the hotel and give him a big hug."
Harvey, the four-year-old son of England midfielder Katie Chapman, was in China to take mum's mind off things and the Norway squad had two particularly young cheerleaders for the opening week of their campaign. Midfielder Solveig Gulbrandsen's toddler son Theodor was a regular at training, together with Camilla Huse's six-year-old daughter Mia. For these youngsters it was not so much a FIFA Women's World Cup as a family holiday.
For the family of New Zealand captain Rebecca Smith, meanwhile, the tournament provided a useful pretext for a full-scale family reunion. As one of the team's few professional players, Smith divides her time between northern Sweden, where she plays for club side Sunnana SK, and Los Angeles, where her family are based. The 26-year-old defender had not been home to see them since January but fortunately both her parents and her sister made the journey to China for the finals.
In the case of Smith's 23-year-old sister Vanessa, who works
in the film industry in Hollywood, she was with the New Zealand
team from the start to film a documentary about their China 2007
campaign. Then on 11 September, Rebecca's parents flew in from
Los Angeles to watch their daughter play her first match against
Brazil before the whole family travelled to Tianjin for New
Zealand's final group match against China.
Although the Ferns lost all three matches, Smith revealed she had enjoyed every minute of her Chinese adventure and was now looking forward to relaxing with her family back in California. "We've learnt a lot from our experience and I hope we can win a match at the next World Cup," she said. "After the tournament I'm going back to LA with my parents to take a week off before returning to Sweden." The football merry go round seldom stops - which makes time with loved ones all the more important.