Zhang Xin has excelled for both club and country since her comeback
Mother of a three-year-old was a key figure as China sealed Olympic qualification
Zhang is aiming to help the Steel Roses reach the Tokyo 2020 gold medal match
Retiring at 25, returning at 27, and, all being well, an Olympian at 29. This is the amazing story of Zhang Xin, an in-form midfielder for China PR and Shanghai Agricultural and Commercial Bank FC.
Zhang announced an unexpected retirement from the game in 2017, shortly after she helped Shanghai win gold in that year's National Games. With fans and media left lamenting the disappointing decision which seemingly brought a promising career to an abrupt and premature end, the Shanghai-born player, now a mother, stunned even her own supporters by making a comeback in early 2019.
"I returned to playing probably because my life belongs to the football pitch," the 29-year-old told FIFA.com. "[After getting married and giving birth to a baby] I found I still love football so much. The game brings tremendous joy to me."
She didn't, of course, just come back to simply participate. After going through a hard-working acclimatisation period, Zhang quickly earned a place in the Shanghai starting side that finished runners-up in the Chinese Women's Super League and Women's FA Cup. She then added five goals and assists apiece in 2020 season as her side finished third.
All the more notable was her form with the national team during qualifying for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020. Zhang started in all five fixtures as Steel Roses booked their passage to the global showpiece.
She was on target in a 6-1 rout of Thailand during the group campaign and in the all-important playoff against Korea Republic, the dynamic attacker broke the deadlock to set China on the path to a 2-1 first-leg win. Zhang and Co. went on to play out a tense 2-2 draw in the return match to progress 4-3 on aggregate at the opponents' expense.
"I just did what I had been required to do by coach Jia [Xiuquan]," said a modest Zhang reflecting on their successful campaign. "I tried to do my best in each training session, to play to the game plan in each game. I have regained much of my strength and fitness and I am now capable of competing against the rivals physically.
"We sealed the ticket to the Olympics. It was down to the collective efforts by us all, both the coaching staff and the players. It is my first Olympic campaign and I am so excited. For me, in a sense, it is a dream come true to represent our country at the Olympic Games."
Usually deployed as a right winger, Zhang, boasts significant versatility. Adding to her pace and attacking flair, Zhang possesses powerful shooting from either foot. Her goals against Thailand and Korea Republic were left-footed strikes, but she says her right foot is better. "I have balanced feet but when it comes to accuracy and delicacy to the ball, I count more on my right foot."
China finished as runners-up at their Olympic debut at Atlanta 1996 and a quarter of a century on, Zhang is hoping a similar feat can be emulated in Japan. "The goal set for my first Olympics is simple - I hope we can reach the final.
“We don't have a bad draw," she added, analysing a group which also features Brazil, Netherlands and Zambia. "There will be no weak teams and what we need to do is to keep trying hard and playing well in each game."
Interestingly, their group match against Zambia will re-unite Zhang and her Shanghai team-mate Barbra Banda, a phenomenal goal-scorer who finished the past Chinese season as top-scorer with 18 goals. "I am looking to compete against Banda," she said of the Zambia captain. "It will be an enticing match-up. We are team-mates with Shanghai but we will be rivals in the Olympics. There will always be something unexpected and this is the charm of football."
With her son turning three this month, Zhang feels added responsibility to perform well. "Aside from my passion for the game, my child adds to my motivation to play - I want to give him a better life.”