When she was at primary school, Gu Yasha barely knew the first thing about football. In fact, she was not much interested in the game. Her attitude and life at the time were typical of a normal young girl growing up in Zhengzhou, about 700 km south of Beijing, in the Henan province. But her PE teacher saw something in her – that she was "quick and had a good, strong physique" – and she has since blossomed into one of the stars of the China PR team that is preparing to take on Germany today in the quarter-finals of the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
"Back then the Chinese national team were very strong and really popular throughout the country," the winger told FIFA.com, flashing a beaming, braces-infused smile. So she decided to heed her teacher's advice to "give playing football a shot". It was as if a whole new world had opened up before the 5'5 (1.65 m) youngster, who quickly felt at home. "Once I got involved, I really enjoyed it," she revealed.
Intriguingly, the first time Gu kicked a ball, she instinctively did so with her right foot, yet she now primarily inflicts damage with her left and also down that wing. Indeed, her two-footedness is admired by Bruno Bini, the Frenchman who has coached China's women since September 2015. "When you watch her, you can't tell if she's left or right-footed, which is a very good thing," he said. "I play down both flanks, but I'm predominantly left-footed," added Gu, smiling again, "When I was younger, my club was short on left-footed players and the coaches recommended I practice that side of my game. I did so and I felt good; it felt natural and I worked on it a lot."
The lion's share of her goals are also scored on her left side, although in Bini's words, she is a player "with a varied skill set". South Africa recently felt the effects of her fearsome left foot and another of her calling cards: her knack for coming up with important goals. She did so in qualifying for the Games – she cut inside to notch a left-footed screamer against Vietnam and also found the net against Japan – and continued in the same vein in the second round of Group E fixtures in Rio. China had lost their opener to Brazil and her strike against the South Africans, at the tail end of a first half that looked like ending goalless, gave her side a timely boost.
When you watch her, you can't tell if she's left or right-footed, which is a very good thing.
"Now I know myself better than when I was young and I can control my mentality and harness it for the best," she said. This is not to suggest that Gu is getting on in years: she is only 25, but she has been around the block a few times. She made her senior China debut aged just 17 and has graced the quarter-finals of a major international tournament twice before, at the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ and at the 2008 Games in none other than Beijing. She is the only member of the current squad to have featured in the competition eight years ago.
"In Beijing we were on home soil and the feeling when you play in your country is totally different to when you play elsewhere. I was able to score a goal after coming off the bench and I'll always remember that moment – it left a big mark on me. On top of that, I was really young back then. Now it's different: I'm more experienced and I think I can make a bigger contribution and help the team go further," she replied when asked to compare and contrast her two Olympic campaigns.
Bini has a lot of faith in her ability to wreak havoc down the left and believes she has rediscovered her top form at the best possible moment: "She's producing good performances again just at the right time." The tactician, who led his native France to fourth-place finishes at the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany and at the London 2012 Games, has made a big impact on his charges. "We're more confident tactically speaking and when it comes to our collective work," said Gu in praise of her coach, in spite of the fact that his regime risked incurring the squad's wrath by barring them from using their beloved mobile phones during dinner.
The Frenchman has had to adapt in some respects, for example with regard to the heavy breakfasts favoured in the Chinese camp, but he has put his foot down in relation to phone overuse. Gu has been as hard hit by this rule as anybody and was one of those who celebrated as if they had won a trophy when, after beating USA in a friendly last December which brought to an end a 104-match unbeaten home record for the Stars and Stripes, Bini announced that they would be allowed to pore over their handheld screens while eating that night.
An even bigger shriek of delight would surely be called for if Gu and Co manage to overcome Germany in the quarters in Rio. However, she is keen not to "overthink" the match. As she put it, "I just want to give my all and make my dream come true: first by reaching the semi-finals and then by challenging for a medal."
This is a dream that would have been unfathomable back in the day for that fresh-faced schoolgirl who knew next to nothing about football.