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Senior women in Hebei catch second wind from soccer

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Members Of The First Women S Soccer Team Of Cangzhou
Members of the first women's soccer team of Cangzhou, north China's Hebei province pose for a picture during the seventh Games of Hebei province in 1985. (File photo)

By Shao Yuzi, 

After finishing housework at 2:30 pm, Xiao Zhirong changed into her athletic gear and hopped on her e-bike. Roughly a dozen minutes later, she arrived at the soccer pitch in Grand Canal Park of Cangzhou, north China’s Hebei province.

Xiao, 56, is the captain of the “50+ Soccer Team,” which consists of 19 players whose average age exceeds 50.

After getting warmed up, Xiao and her team took to the soccer pitch to face off against a youth soccer team. The green pitch was alive with shouts and laughter, drawing crowds of spectators.

None of Xiao and her teammates would miss their weekly soccer gathering on Saturdays, regardless of how busy they may be.

The story of the soccer team dates back to more than 40 years ago. In 1983, when the first women’s soccer team of Cangzhou was established. Two years later, it was crowned at a municipal soccer championship and won the seventh place in the soccer competition at the seventh Games of Hebei province.

After that, members of the team gradually retired from soccer. In the summer of 2022, Zhang Jinhong, one of the former team members, attended a soccer gathering and was inspired to re-establish the team. That evening, Zhang contacted the former team captain Xiao, and soon, the 19 team members who lived in the same city of Cangzhou but rarely kept in touch, gathered together again because of their love for soccer.

“Returning to the game, I’ve become the old me that always ran on the soccer pitch,” Xiao said. Though she’s not as physically capable and skillful as before, the excitement and joy the game brings to her remain the same.

In order to quickly adapt to the intensity of training, Xiao, who had rarely exercised previously, now goes for a morning jog with her husband every day. 

Chen Guoxia, a 56-year-old forward of the team, also goes for brisk walks in the park with her friends. “Don’t be fooled by our age. Once we step onto the pitch, we are all full of energy,” Chen said.

Xiao told People’s Daily that most of the team members have multiple roles, as they have to take care of family matters and also busy themselves with daily work. Although the three-hour training session every Saturday afternoon is short, they feel relaxed and at ease. 

“We focus on soccer, feel the joy, and forget our worries,” Xiao said.

“Stay safe, avoid injuries, and remember that we play soccer for fun.” This is what Xiao always says before every game.

Prior to the games, she leads the team to do warm-up exercises, and after the games end, she gathers everyone for a chat. 

“We share our joys and troubles in life, encourage and support each other. Sports just enrich our lives,” Xiao told People’s Daily.

Now, the frequency of the team’s training has increased from once to four times a week, and the training facilities have also improved significantly.

The sports bureau of Cangzhou has provided strong support to this spirited senior women’s soccer team. It has designated a municipal-level stadium as the team’s training venue and arranged friendly matches in Cangzhou between the team and the provincial women’s soccer team of Hebei. 

Cangzhou is actively promoting the development of senior sports associations, which have been established in almost every county-level region in the city. A network of senior citizens’ sports associations at the municipal and county levels has been formed.

The cheers and laughter on the green pitch are attracting more and more people. “Every time we train, there are always people watching, and some soccer fans would come and play with us together!” Said Zhang.

Zhang often arrives early at the stadium, and her husband Ma Chunli, influenced by her, always comes to cheer on the team. Now, he has become an “extra member” of the team, who is responsible for the team’s logistics and helps clean up the stadium after matches.

Zhang Yuying, a 55-year-old guard of the team, spends most of her time at home taking care of her grandson. Under her influence, her grandson has developed a strong interest in soccer.

“When my daughter saw me running on the soccer pitch, she was surprised, saying she didn’t expect me to be so cool,'” Zhang Yuying said, smiling. Her passion for soccer has inspired her family, and now they make time every week to exercise together.

“Soccer brings us joy, and we want to spread a positive attitude towards life to more people,” Zhang Jinhong said. The team has reached out to local primary and secondary schools, promoting soccer through school visits and games, with an aim to inspire more people to develop a passion for soccer and enjoy the fun of sports.

Zhao Guoyuan, director of the sports bureau of Cangzhou, said that the city is actively promoting the construction of intelligent sports equipment, elderly-friendly sports facilities, and barrier-free sports facilities to improve the sports environment for middle-aged and elderly people. 

At the same time, regular sports events such as square dancing, table tennis competitions, and basketball matches are organized to provide a platform for middle-aged and elderly people to showcase their sporting talents and create a strong atmosphere of fitness for all, Zhao added.

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