For Lu Yiliang, there could no more fitting place in which to lead China PR to gold at the Girls’ Youth Olympic Football Tournament 2014 than the familiar surrounds of Nanjing’s Wutaishan stadium. Once the stamping ground where the 43-year-old spent ten years of his playing career as a midfield mainstay with Jiangsu Sainty, the China PR coach will now also remember it as the place where he led his country to their first FIFA crown.
Under Lu’s leadership, the Chinese U-15 girls swept all before them at the Youth Olympics, following up back-to-back victories in the group round with a semi-final shoot-out success over Slovakia. In the much-anticipated decider against Venezuela, the young Steel Roses stunned the gold-medal favourites 5-0 to claim the gold medal with a 100 per cent winning record.
"Our two years of hard training weren’t in vain after all," said the Chinese supremo in an interview with FIFA.com after the awards ceremony, his normally even voice betraying more than a hint of emotion, "and the players' efforts have also paid off. This is a gratifying result. "
*The start of something big *Lu Yiliang began coaching the women's youth team 2011 at a time when Chinese women’s football was languishing in the doldrums. For the first time in their history the Steel Roses had missed out on qualification for the FIFA Women's World Cup™ and the Olympic Football Tournament, while the youth sides had failed to score in the 2010 U-17 and U-20 global showpieces.
The first crop of youngsters that Lu trained up made a smooth transition into the national U-17 team and became mainstays in the team’s successful passage to this year's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Costa Rica. Since taking the reins of this U-15 team two years ago, Lu has successfully produced another elite outfit and guided them to the top of the podium at the Youth Olympics.
Memories of the team’s early beginnings evoke deep feelings in the Chinese coach: "On my first day in the job, I told these players that they had to have ambition," revealed Lu. "I said to them: ‘When you play football you should be aspiring to become world champions. If you don’t have those kind of targets and self-confidence then you can’t hope to become top players, even if you have first-rate technical skills and ability.’"
If you want to be world-class players, that road is still very long.
However, unlike other coaches who solely emphasise technique and tactical training, Lu attaches great importance to nurturing the character and moral qualities of his protégées. "My coaching philosophy is: if you want to play well, then you must first learn to be a good person," the Chinese taskmaster said. “A good player has to be a good person first and foremost. Consequently, we have a great atmosphere within the squad, with everyone training hard and helping each other, which is vital for the team."
Lu's first thought after the final victory over Venezuela was to thank his players. "I appreciate their efforts. In my two years of leading the team, the players have made progress and I’ve learned a lot too. I’m grateful to these players for letting me learn so much [as a coach]. This team has formed its own style and playing system, which has been honed and practised through international competitions such as the Youth Olympics. They have a great future ahead of them."
It goes without saying that this title-winning side should form the vanguard of China PR’s assault on next year’s AFC U-16 Women's Championship, which doubles as the Asian preliminary tournament for the U-17 Women's World Cup 2016. "If we can keep up this development and progress, [they] should be ready to represent China in the U-16 event,” said Lu. “But I warned them: ‘Today's triumph is just the beginning. If you want to be world-class players, that road is still very long.’"
Although Lu remains unclear as to what the future holds for him and his charges after their triumphant Olympic odyssey, he already feels a special attachment to the women’s game. "During these past few years I’ve not only bonded with the players and accumulated coaching experience, but my confidence in my work as a women's football coach has also become stronger, so I’ll use this time to take stock of my experiences,” said the China PR coach, who is not the only one to have grown stronger during his tenure. “My overriding feeling is that there are big things in store for these players, and for Chinese women's football as a whole," he concluded with conviction.