You do not have to scratch far below the surface to see that women's football in China is struggling for recognitionYou do not have to scratch far below the surface to see that women's football in China is struggling for recognition (AFP Photo/HECTOR RETAMAL)
Shanghai (AFP) - Her grandmother never wanted her to play football so 11-year-old Liu Chang's father sneaked her out of the house when grandma wasn't looking.
China qualified for next month's Women's World Cup for a seventh time in eight editions and boast a record that their men's team can only envy.
But you do not have to scratch far below the surface to see that women's football in China is struggling for recognition.
"China has a lot of people but there aren't many playing football," said Qian Hui, who is renowned for developing girl footballers in Shanghai.
"I think the people we choose to join the team are not necessarily the best, the best ones don't always want to be selected," said Qian, overseeing coaching at Jinshajiang Road Elementary School, which specialises in girls football.
"So we feel quite troubled."
Liu, a skilful left winger, is among more than 100 girls aged seven to 18 who train five days a week under Qian and her fellow coaches. Matches are on Saturdays.
Underlining Qian's point, Liu said she only got into the sport because her football-mad father wanted her to realise the dream he never fulfilled.
With no son, the onus fell on a reluctant Liu.
"I didn't want to play at first but my dad sent me here," she said.
"My grandma used to say girls shouldn't play football and should dance or play piano.
"There was a time when my grandma went elsewhere to work and my dad sent me here while she wasn't looking."
- 'Poor treatment' -
President Xi Jinping has grand ambitions for Chinese football, including winning a World Cup.
China, 16th in the FIFA women's rankings, are more likely than the men to achieve that -- the men languish at 74th and reached the World Cup only once, when they exited without a point or a goal in 2002.
Yet women's football gets little notice in China.
In contrast to large crowds and rabid fan followings enjoyed by some clubs in the men's Chinese Super League, the domestic Women's Super League receives scant publicity and games draw meagre attendances.
Qian paints a bleak picture for the development of the women's game, saying parents often worry sport will get in the way of their daughters' studies.
While that also applies to boys in China, some people, like Liu's grandmother, simply don't see football as something girls should play.
Some parents even fear that by playing football their daughters will develop sun-darkened skin more associated with manual or farm labour.
"Poor treatment but good results are the situation of the women's football team," said Qian, 50, a motherly figure to her young charges.
"And little attention."
Despite their comparative success, including eight Asian Cups (the men have never won their equivalent), the women's national team get nothing like the financing of their male counterparts.
"They have slept on the floor, taken overnight trains to go to matches," said Qian, whose graduates include current internationals Zhao Lina, who is a goalkeeper, and midfielder Yang Lina.
"It's impossible for the men's football team to have such treatment.
"Maybe people will pay more attention to us if the women's team wins the World Cup."
- Goals with holes -
The winger Liu and her teammates shoot in goals with ripped nets that have gaping holes in them, the ball frequently ending up in a shrubbery as a result.
That is at least better than in 1999, the year when China's women lost the World Cup final to the United States on penalties, when the now-synthetic school pitch was nothing more than a dirt patch.
Qian is doing her best to get more girls and their hesitant parents interested.
That includes allowing the girls to sleep at the school so that they can dedicate their spare time to their studies and their football.
Qian also appreciates that drilling children to perfection -- the usual method in Chinese sport -- is pointless if they do not enjoy it and cannot make decisions for themselves on the pitch.
Fourth at the 1995 World Cup and runners-up in 1999, China's women have fallen behind the likes of the US, Germany, England and 2019 World Cup hosts France.
China's government is committed to improving women's football and Qian said that a new rule stipulating that all men's top-tier clubs must also field a women's team is "very helpful".
But she warned: "We need to learn (from the best nations).
"I think we are not just one or two years behind them and we won't be able to catch up in one or two years."