Hosts China PR have left no stone unturned in the build-up to this August's Girls' Youth Olympic Football Tournament Nanjing 2014 as they target the gold medal. While it is a highly challenging task for them as tournament debutants, the Chinese can count on an emerging star in the form of team captain Zhao Yujie.
A talented midfielder, Yujie hails from Shanghai, the country's biggest city which has produced a rich crop of women stars with legendary Sun Wen the most notable. Obviously, it is a fact on which the teenager prides herself as she spoke with FIFA.com in a recent interview.
"I know her (Sun Wen) well only she doesn't know me," said Yujie with a smile and glint in her eyes. "Although I have yet to meet her, I can at least draw inspiration from her as I hope to become a good footballer."
Like her idol, Yujie showed her genius during childhood but her love for football was ignited in unexpected fashion. "I was in my last term of kindergarten when one afternoon, the teacher woke us up and handed us a football," said Yujie at the team’s training camp in Chengdu. "In a small field with two tiny goals, I was tasked playing against a host of classmates - several of whom were boys. And my first game ended in a surprise as I, despite playing as a one-player team, defeated them all and won."
This triggered her obsession with the game and luckily, Yujie was spotted by a coaching duo who became her mentors during primary school and middle school. She would continue her progress when she was recruited by an athletic school, before joining the national team a couple of years ago.
Even with the national team, Yujie has demonstrated skills and aplomb beyond her years, a fact which has quickly established her as the team's most influential figure. She skippered the national team to a runners-up finish in a regional tournament two years ago, including defeating Japan 3-1.
"Each time when I think of representing my country at the Youth Olympic Games, I feel excited," she said. “Perhaps it makes me a bit awkward, too. I hope we can play well as a team and do our best to win the championship.”
*Coaching support *Aside from boasting talents like Yujie, the hosts' hopes are bolstered by their experienced coaching staff. Heading the managerial team is Yu Yiliang, a former Jiangsu player renowned for his versatility. Since taking the reins of the national girls' side three years ago, he has quickly made a name in his new coaching role. He laid the foundation for the team that qualified for the recent FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Costa Rica and is now tasked with preparing the current U-15 crop for Nanjing 2014.
"I have played in every position during my playing career, so this helps much in my assessments of players," Lu told FIFA.com. "I am glad there are a series of very talented players in this team. Aside from Yu Jie, Wan Wenjuan is a fast attacker. She can finish a 30-metre sprint within four seconds, a surprise result even for the male players."
"These girls have made obvious progress over the past two years, particularly in tactical and mental terms. We have focused on improving through competitions because it is in matches against strong opposition that they can learn how to deal with the rivals properly."
Their fast progress is such that Lu's side have emerged superior against domestic teams, some of which are of older age level. To seek stronger opposition, Lu has arranged warm-ups against male teams. "We drew against the boys from Chengdu Sheffield 1-1 recently," he said proudly.
The team travel to France for a one-week overseas camp this week during which they will play five friendlies against local teams and Lu is hoping the international exposure and experiences can stand his side in good stead during August's world competition. "The Olympic games are all about encounters because the teams are all unfamiliar with each other. The US team should pose the biggest threat for us, but whoever we play against, we will try to better as we want to win the tournament."