BEIJING - As China geared up for their opening Women's World Cup fixture in Australia on Saturday, there was cause for optimism for the future back home as more and more young women take up soccer for fun.
Wang Lu, a 32-year-old screenwriter and lifelong soccer fan, is one. Last week, after some two decades of trying, she played her first ever soccer match on a small all-weather pitch on the eastern outskirts of Beijing.
"I feel so happy," a beaming, slightly emotional-looking Wang said on the touchline afterwards. "It's like I've realized my childhood dream."
There were only boys teams at her schools, and they would not accept girls. Her home city in Shandong province had no amateur girls teams.
As a kid Wang was so desperate to play she that crafted a makeshift ball out of paper and elastic bands. She practiced, mostly alone, in the yard of her residential compound.
In addition to the lack of resources, Wang's parents did not support the idea of her playing.
"Our family was relatively inward-looking, and they would even ask, 'Why do girls like sports?' And so you had to say why," she said.
"But why do we need a reason? It's just that they like it. There are still some stereotypes, and now slowly these stereotypes are disappearing."
Like several other players, Wang found out about the opportunity to play from a post on Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like app popular with young middle-class Chinese women.
She was playing with Netpals, a club of mainly novice players, so named because they came together online.
Last year Netpals had about 20 players. Now they have a community of around 150, made up of working adults and students, according to coach and founder Kidd Xu.
Several other women's teams in Beijing have grown in a similar fashion in the last year. There are around 20 amateur teams regularly playing matches, up from five to 10 last year. There is a new league and new teams being established in other cities, he said.
The trend reflects a growing culture amongst young Chinese women of healthy living, trying out new outdoor activities or sports as a hobby. It took off last year when people could not travel because of China's draconian zero-COVID policy. Women took up pursuits like hiking, skateboarding and the flying disc game known as "ultimate."
Some have started playing soccer.
"Soccer has boosted my confidence," said another Netpals player, 16-year-old high school student Jolin Liu.
"When I was young, many people believed that girls shouldn't play soccer. But now when I play in the neighborhood, I receive praise, and people say that a girl playing soccer is cool.
"It makes me believe that girls can do it too and we shouldn't let gender limit us. Everyone is more willing to bravely stand up, break free from constraints and be themselves.
"Additionally, with the development of social media, more people's stories can be heard, and individuals like 'Old Xu' are willing to step up and provide opportunities for girls."
Kidd Xu got into women's soccer in 2021 when he found himself with extra free time because he could no longer travel for his day job, teaching Western-style holistic education methods to Chinese soccer coaches.
In addition to Netpals, he has set up two other women's teams, helped establish the league and organized several amateur women's soccer tournaments.
The amateur women's game has yet to go mainstream or gain a popularity akin to that in the United States. The future of the elite Chinese game is hampered by a lack of young players, who are pressured to prioritize study, as well as by strict, Soviet-style coaching methods, several former elite-level players said.
Still, unlike their male counterparts, the women's team has a decent record. The Steel Roses are ranked 14th in the world according to FIFA and won the Asian Cup last year. But after a run of poor form and being drawn in a tough group at the World Cup, the team's fans and even coach acknowledge they will do well just to get to the knockout stages at the tournament in Australia and New Zealand.
Their first match, against Denmark, kicks off at 1200 GMT.
Netpals defender Yin Minghua, 38, said the growing visibility of amateur players might help widen the base of the women's game.
"In the past when people saw girls playing football, they thought it was a rare species," said the freelance administrator, who joined Netpals last year soon after the birth of her first child.
"But now more and more people, after they see this, they think that girls playing football is also a part of football, and so this can change slightly people's views on women.
"I feel we have at least made a little contribution to this change. So maybe I feel a little proud, a little sense of achievement."