Tears and joy in Fan's ever-evolving footballing adventure
Fan Yunjie is a former China PR long-serving player and captain
Defender narrowly failed to score tournament winner in iconic USA 1999 Final
Chinese icon attended the inaugural FIFA Coach Mentorship Program
Fan Yunjie couldn't move when she was about to lead the team for fitness training. It was a sudden leg cramp which made her lose sensation, and though she kept her cool as if nothing had happened, it took Fan a long time to recover a sense in her muscles as the session began. She then tried jogging outside, first at a gentle pace and then picking up speed. Finally, she returned to the empty gym and completed that day's routine tasks all by herself.
That happened in China PR's build-up to the Women's Olympic Tournament at Athens 2004. Fan, then one of the Olympic squad’s few remaining players from the golden generation that reached the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup USA™ Final, was tasked with captaining a team in transition.
"It was a hard time of my career," the 48-year-old former China and San Diego Spirit defender told FIFA.com. "I was 32 and with old injuries and no longer on my top form. But we had a young team and as a veteran it was my duty to lead by example.
"I pushed myself to limit. I didn't want to show my weak sides in front of the youngsters. Sometimes, I really felt the loneliness, exhaustion and helplessness and I wept secretly," Fan says, tears welling in her eyes at the memory nearly two decades on.
Various jobs, same spirit
Such spirit has been a trademark for Fan throughout an impressive career, both on and off the pitch. And she has lost little of that character since hanging up her boots after Athens 2004. In fact, she has continued to impress in a series of new roles ranging from AFC official, local FA media officer to youth coach.
After retirement, Fan, having completed an AFC B coaching course, got involved in youth development. Her brilliant work didn't go unnoticed by AFC as she joined Vision Asia in 2008 - an AFC project aimed at raising the continent's football level.
In addition, she attended sports courses in a university, spent a full year in the United States improving her English and, when she was elected a member of the National People's Congress in 2007, Fan organised the country's first congressmen team and guided them in a friendly against their counterparts from Japan as the only female among the two delegations.
From mentee to mentor
Fan further showcased her versatility when she emerged as media officer of Henan Province FA in 2011, notably addressing the local media in the national women's league in the following years as a former star.
She went on to work at Canada 2015 as a member of FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG) before joining the national senior team coaching staff in 2017. The next year saw her take part in the inaugural FIFA Coach Mentorship Program - a project where female coaches from across the world were paired with experienced mentors.
"I drew plenty of inspiration from those mentors in this FIFA project," Fan reflected. "I learned a lot. I began as a mentee but I set new ambitions of becoming a mentor. Some of the mentors are former players I know so compared with them, I am lagging behind, and I must work hard to catch up."
Indeed, Fan has now realised her mentor dream through hard work, and this year she has started giving online lectures to local youth coaches during the pandemic lockdown. Recently she has been working in a women youth development project in Anhui Province as an adviser, an act which is in accordance with the vision of CFA vice-president Sun Wen, her former Steel Roses’ team-mate.
"We are helping set up the provincial youth training centre. President Sun has called for the promotion of youth development and she hopes that more of our generation can offer our share of contribution.”
Joy and sorrow
Fan is the third most-capped national team player, having racked up an incredible 192 appearances across her 12-year national team career. The most memorable moment of her storied career was a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Korea DPR in the 1998 Asian Games final where she headed home a golden goal winner.
"Korea DPR were a rising team who posed a real threat for us in those days. Meanwhile, our dominance was ebbing having peaked in Asia for years. It was indeed a fiercely contested battle and I was happy for scoring the match and tournament winning-goal. At least the strike helped defend our place and delay the rival's rise to Asia's top."
Fan came within a whisker of repeating the feat in the storied USA 1999 Final where a rampaging China competed for their maiden title against the hosts. Again the showdown entered extra time and Fan popped up to unleash a powerful header off a Liu Ying corner kick only to see it blocked by Kristine Lilly on the goalline in what was the Steel Roses best opportunity to claim the world crown. It remains a bitter memory which Fan still laments to this day.
"Everything was perfect - the corner kick was perfect, my leaping and timing of heading was perfect, the weight I put on to the ball was perfect. Only it didn't end in another golden goal. We entered the 1999 campaign with the sole aim of winning our first Women's World Cup title but it evaded us. It was the pity of a lifetime for us.
“For me, our hopes are on the future generation. That is why I am focusing all my attention on youth development. And to achieve our goals, I won’t turn my back on any job be it management, youth coaching, or media work.”