Bai: All-round development is key for female players
Bai Lili is the head of AFC’s Women Football Department
Former China PR star saw injury curtail her playing career
She has excelled since moving into development roles
Ludwig van Beethoven once spoke of “seizing fate by the throat”. A little less than two centuries have elapsed since the great musician's death but his words continue to resonate among people facing up to adversity – footballers included. Notable among then is former China PR international Bai Lili, who has shaped a new destiny for herself after her playing career was brought to a cruel and abrupt end by a serious ligament injury.
It happened during the national team’s title-winning campaign at the 2006 AFC Women's Asian Cup. A central figure in coach Ma Liangxing's starting line-up, Bai excelled throughout as China stormed into the last four, where they edged holders Korea DPR 1-0. That game, however, proved to be her last.
Bai had to watch from stand as her team-mates went on to defeat Australia on penalties to win their eighth Asian title. Despite missing the action, she cut a happy figure, holding the trophy on a wheelchair, surrounded by team-mates, as were acclaimed at the post-campaign celebration.
"To be honest, I was unaware how bad the injury was," the 42-year-old, who is now head of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Women Football Department, told FIFA.com. "I was full of hope about a quick recovery. I couldn’t wait because the next year  was the FIFA Women's World Cup in China."
For Bai, who had represented the country at the 2002 AFC Women's Asian Cup and 2004 Women's Olympic Football Tournament, a World Cup on home soil was to represent the pinnacle of her career. But the injury was devastating, and despite four operations in the next two years, her hopes of returning to the field slowly faded.
"I did whatever I could as I tried to regain my fitness as a player. But ultimately I knew my past self would never return,” she reflected. “I was in my prime [before the injury] but I had to retire from playing. It was so cruel.”
A new chapter
The picture of Bai celebrating on wheelchair now appears doubly poignant. All the more touching, however, is her story of facing up to her greatest challenge and emerging with a new and exciting career.
Knowing that she could not say goodbye to the game entirely, Bai opted to contribute in the beautiful game's development. She founded a company where she coached children, took part in campus football programmes and worked as an assistant in both FIFA and AFC grassroots projects in China.
"It is no use lamenting the past," she reflected. "You have to do something down-to-earth. You need to put ideas into action and then you have opportunities to realise your ambitions."
To better prepare herself for this new stage in her career, Bai undertook AFC coaching courses, progressing through the levels levels until she received the Pro License in 2016.
Her efforts and progress did not go unnoticed and she joined the coaching staff of the China's U-17 women's team that competed in the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Costa Rica. Then, a year later, she joined the AFC as Head of Women's Football.
"Looking back, it was in those years as a youth coach that I developed my new ability after retirement. Aside from teaching the young players, I gained a lot of experiences in terms of management and getting along with people. I think AFC watched me for years [before giving me the offer]," she said.
A shining example
The challenge presented by the AFC job is, indeed, different from all those that she had faced before either as a player or coach. As the person in charge of the development of the women's game across the world's biggest continent, Bai knows that she bears a great responsibility.
"There are 47 AFC member associations and you need to learn about their situations one by one. You have to go there and meet people, find out their needs and offer help. You need to provide solutions and plans through communication.
"Generally, the women's game has made big progress across Asia, but development levels are uneven. Teams in East Asia are relatively strong, while in other regions they still have their work cut out. Having said that, our continent is the most populous and we have big potential.
"There are so many different cultures in Asia. This is another advantage for us as this ensures that Asian women football has so much diversity; you see teams play with drastically different styles."
Through her work, Bai has earned respect and admiration. “Bai is such an inspiration and someone I really admire: for her resilience, her willingness to give back and her determined approach to seeing women’s football in Asia reach new heights,” Sarai Bareman, FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer told FIFA.com.
“She is a fantastic example of how experience and knowledge gained on the field can have a huge contribution to our game off the field. I hope to see more former players like Bai get involved in the administration of women’s football – to the benefit of women and girls everywhere.”
There can certainly be few more inspiring figures for young female footballers across Asia and beyond. As Bai herself says: "As a former player, I can prove through my example that girls can have a bright future through football. You need to improve your ability both on and off the pitch. Female players need to achieve all-round development."
This article is part of our series focused on women’s football, and women in football, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2021. To find out more about FIFA’s Women’s Football Strategy and Development Programmes, and to read more articles like this, click here.