HAIKOU, July 11 (Xinhua) -- Gao Yuying could have become a farmer like her parents, or waited tables, or just married young and been a housewife like most of her peers, but soccer changed her life.
Gao, 24, from Qiongzhong, a poor county in south China's Hainan Province, was selected to play for the first ever Qiongzhong women's soccer team in 2006, which later meant she could enter college.
Her team received national fame when, three times in a row, it won the Gothia Cup, the world's largest youth soccer tournament. After graduation from the Hainan Normal University, Gao turned down a well-paid job and became a Qiongzhong women soccer-team coach.
At the upcoming final of the FIFA World Cup scheduled Sunday in Moscow, one of Gao's players, 10-year-old Wu You, will be a ball girl. By playing soccer, poor girls like Gao and Wu can access the outside world and make a better life for themselves.
The women's soccer team was formed in 2006 under financial support of the county government, with players offered free school and accomodation.
Each player was granted five yuan (75 U.S. cents) as meal subsidy every day, one-seventh of that for a provincial-level athlete. To feed themselves, the team grew their own vegetables after training.
Gao, among the first batch of 24 players, had never seen real soccer until she joined the team, aged 12.
"We got an unwritten rule: the one who worked hardest during training would enjoy an egg for the breakfast the next morning," she says.
Qiongzhong is a mountainous county in Hainan, where students have to climb over steep peaks and trek for hours just to get to school.
"Years of trekking in the mountains made them superior athletes," says 52-year-old head coach Xiao Shan.
The team got up at 5:30 a.m., ran 4,000 meters before practising soccer skills. Some players suffered from injuries due to five hours' intensive training every day.
In 2008, Xiao led the team to Guangdong Province to attend winter training for a high-school league tournament. The team lost the first two matches, 8-0 and 9-0.
"Seeing contempt in our rivals' eyes, we were too humiliated to finish dinner," Gao says. "The failure made us practice even harder. We would have gained nothing if we had continued to lose."
As the only women's soccer team in Qiongzhong, they had to turn to the men's team for practice and matches.
The years of hard training finally paid off.
The team won several national-level matches, before winning the Gothia Cup from 2015 to 2017. Professional coaches volunteered to help them with training, and sponsors emerged to pay for their travel.
Gao's former teammate Chen Qiaocui remembers when they boarded a high-speed train for the first time.
"Coach Xiao told us the train ran 'fast as a rocket.' So when the train set out, we screamed a little and clutched firmly to the handles before we realized we had been fooled," says Chen, who is now also a member of the coaching team.
In 2011, six players including Gao and Chen were listed as national top-level athletes. They were admitted to a local university, astonishing their parents. Few girls had ever entered senior-high school in the county, let alone university.
"A parent even called me to ask whether the college admission letter was authentic," Xiao says with a smile.
Over the past 12 years, the team produced 57 national level athletes, and 24 athletes entered university.
Xiao hopes more girls will be able to escape the mountains and enter the national women soccer team or university.
"Even though not all of them will continue to play soccer, the experience of fighting for their dreams and sharing with teammates will be memorable," he says.