Zhao Lina is the face of Chinese women’s football, a striking presence who towers over most people and turned down approaches to be a model. Now the 26-year-old international goalkeeper, who stands 1.88 metres (6ft 2in), hopes to use her stature to help raise the profile of the women’s game in China.
The country, under football-fan President Xi Jinping, is on a mission to stage and perhaps even win the men’s World Cup.
Chinese clubs are lavishing money to attract foreign coaches and players, while authorities are building football infrastructure and encouraging the nation’s youth to take up the game.
Among the star players lured to China was Argentine forward Carlos Tevez, reportedly on a contract worth 730,000 euros a week at Shanghai Shenhua before he returned home earlier this year.
Zhao, who played for China at the 2016 Olympics and has more than 50 caps, earns just over 10,000 yuan ($1,500) a month at club side Shanghai Rural Commercial Bank (RCB) – and she is the highest-earner.
In her first major interview with foreign media, Zhao told AFP that she is less interested in the money – even if it is “far from enough” – and wants more people to watch women’s football.
Her team, who are full-time professionals, play their home games at a Shanghai university.
“The stadium is only half open and it can only seat a few thousand. As far as I can remember, it has never been full,” said Zhao, who has played for the Shanghai side since she was a teenager.
“Not to exaggerate, but other than our relatives – my parents and other players’ parents – there may be just a couple dozen of real fans there to watch.
“But China’s women’s football is used to this.”
There is a sense of irony that women’s football could get lost in the whirlwind of ambition and cash that characterises the sport in China.
Because while the men are something of a national embarrassment – never winning the Asian Cup and reaching the World Cup only once, in 2002 where they failed to score a goal – the women have enjoyed great success.
Nicknamed the Steel Roses, they have lifted the Asian Cup eight times, coming third in the 2018 edition last month, and have qualified for the World Cup in France next year.
Though more fans watch the women’s national side than club matches, Zhao hinted at despair over the lack of attention.
“If there aren’t many people watching us play, what’s the point?” she asked after rigorous afternoon training in the Shanghai sun.
The RCB players train twice a day and the coaches allow only the briefest of water breaks, even as temperatures top 35 Celsius (95 Farenheit).
“People don’t know women’s football has professional teams. They think we work during the day and have training at night,” said Zhao, who lives with her team-mates on an austere sports campus.
“Sometimes I feel women’s football is quite pitiful because we are doing the same thing (as the men), making 100 percent effort.”
Zhao, who combines agility with impressive ball distribution, has been tempted away from football and she briefly quit the national team because of injuries and all the travelling.
She also caught the eye of a modelling agency and they approached Zhao’s club about employing her. Her coach refused.
But Zhao, who has her nickname “Nana” tattooed on one hand, did seriously consider a career move, going as far as to visit some modelling companies.
“I thought to give it a try, but I discovered I couldn’t do it when I went there,” said Zhao, a keen drummer who hopes to start her own band one day.
Zhao also had offers to play football abroad but she is a Shanghai native and hopes that on her salary, though meagre compared to men, she can repay her parents for their support, even if her mother was not sold on football at first.
Zhao grew up with her parents and grandparents in a small apartment and had to sleep on a sofa in her parents’ bedroom.
“I want to make more money so that my parents can enjoy living in a new house,” she said.
“I hope the pay for women’s football can increase, but more importantly, I hope there are more people coming to watch.”