- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2001

It was a match made in China but played on Long Island.
Old teammates Bai Jie and Gao Hong started on opposite ends of the soccer field a meeting made possible by a year's worth of negotiations, a whirlwind trip to China and tens of thousands of dollars in transfer fees that brought a half-dozen Chinese players to the United States to play in the new Women's United Soccer Association.
For Bai, it is a chance to play professional soccer as a midfielder for the Washington Freedom. For all the Chinese, it also is a chance to discover such mundane pleasures and chores of American life as eating pancakes, learning to drive and, for the first time, paying bills.
Bai sent the Freedom to victory over the New York Power that night a month ago, scoring twice on Gao the same goalie who surrendered the penalty kick that gave the United States its victory over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final and sent Brandi Chastain into a bra-baring celebration.
Bai's Freedom teammates staged a celebration of their own sports bras concealed on Long Island, piling on top of their diminutive Chinese star. And the Freedom weren't the only ones ecstatic about Bai's performance.
"I was so psyched," said Lauren Gregg, WUSA vice president of player personnel and the woman responsible for bringing the Chinese into the league. "It was like vindication. All the work paid off."
Gregg was charged with a task of global proportions after joining the WUSA early in 2000: legitimize the league's claim as the world's best women's soccer league by signing the globe's top talent. The 41-year-old former player and assistant coach for the U.S. team, knew where to look: Latin America, Europe and the soccer powerhouse in Southeast Asia.
"To claim the best league in the world, you have to have the best players," she said. "There would be a hole without the Chinese players."
Filling that hole was a challenge.
China is not a land of soccer moms and minivans. Girls there leave their families at 12 to live in government-run training facilities and remain there throughout their careers.
"We've wondered why they're so technical we've wondered what the secret was," Gregg said. "There's no secret: They've trained twice a day for six days a week since they were 12 years old."
Gregg faced a daunting and delicate task: peel away the layers that insulate individual athletes in the Chinese system the national government, the regional government and the state-run club teams.
The negotiations put Gregg's master's degree in consulting and counseling from Harvard to the test. The Chinese Football Association made clear to her in May 2000 that she would have to play by their rules.
"What they said was, if you follow these steps, we have a chance of getting there," Gregg said.
After a final, whirlwind negotiating trip to Beijing and Shanghai over Thanksgiving weekend, five Chinese players were declared eligible for the WUSA's global draft Dec. 10.
The WUSA paid China a reported transfer fee of $8,000 to $10,000 a player Gregg would not confirm those numbers and the league believes it was a wise investment. The players themselves reportedly are making $55,000 each for the season.
The Atlanta Beat took Chinese national team captain and FIFA Co-Player of the Century Sun Wen with the first pick. Also selected were midfielder Liu Ailing by the Philadelphia Charge, defender Fan Yunjie by the San Diego Spirit, Gao by the Power and defender Wen Lirong by the Carolina Courage.
"We thought if we had two to four, we'd be ecstatic," Gregg said.
Soon the number rose to six with Bai, but not before an international incident almost derailed the deal.
On the morning of April 1, a Chinese military jet and a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane collided over international waters off the coast of China. The Chinese fighter crashed into the South China Sea. The U.S. plane made a forced landing in China, where the 24-person crew was detained touching off an intense showdown between the two nations.
The incident slowed the progress Gregg had made with the CFA in signing Bai. That Bai played forward for the Guangzhou Army club team further complicated matters.
"It concerned me because [the collision] came right at the point where they said she was going to be coming," Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. "I was concerned that they would say, 'There's a breakdown in relations; we're not going to do this.' "
Gregg shared the concern but, like Gabarra, was confident all was not lost.
"The depth of the relationship between the two programs was years and years deep, so I knew that would override [the political atmosphere]," Gregg said.
The crisis passed, and Bai arrived in Washington on April 28, two games into the Freedom's season. She was not surprised by the delay.
"I figured that if the government had to take care of the incident, then they ought to do that before they come to consider my application to come here to play," Bai said through an interpreter. "It was more up to the government officials, the people who were in charge of my case, to decide."
Bai and the other Chinese players have felt a bit of culture shock in making the transition.
"After we arrived in the U.S., we had to adjust to the new environment and learn many things," Sun said. "We must learn how to cook, drive, how to pay our rent and utilities bills with checks. These were all totally new experiences for us Chinese players."
Bai already has become quite the cook. Her three roommates, all Freedom players, slowly have been broadening her culinary horizons in their Arlington apartment.
"Her cooking's good; we like it a lot," goalie Dawn Greathouse said. "And we try to give her some new things, try to help her find some things she might like that we have. [Tuesday] night, she found out she likes pancakes."
Like the other Chinese players, Bai also devotes a lot of energy to learning English.
"She gets tutored twice a week, and she really studies hard," Greathouse said. "We can't wait until she finally learns some English so we can talk to her and just so we can all get to know each other better."
The game, though, is why the Chinese are here, and mastering the American style of soccer is where most of their current efforts lie.
"The soccer played in the U.S., I feel, involves more physical contact, is faster and allows for more individuality," said Sun, whose Courage face the Freedom today at 5 p.m. at RFK Stadium.
For the five drafted in December, the time spent training with their teams in the preseason has proven fruitful. Charge midfielder Liu was the first player to win WUSA Player of the Week twice.
With her late arrival, though, Bai has had difficulty catching up to her countrywomen. Since her two-goal outburst against New York, she has gone without a point in five games. The Freedom (4-5-2) have lost two straight.
For one of China's top goal-scorers, it has all been instructive.
"It's making me more mature," Bai said. "I learn to be more patient, try not to be so agitated. Sometimes you have to swallow some bitterness or things you don't like."
Despite the scoring drought, Bai's addition to the Freedom has been invaluable.
"The greatest thing you can have when you have players of that caliber and they're technically that good is our players practicing against them and seeing what she can do on the ball," Gabarra said.
Eventually, this sort of relationship could elevate women's soccer around the world. Said Bai: "Whatever I learn here, I'll bring back home."
Gabarra and Gregg hope Bai and the other Chinese will be allowed to return next season. The six are on a year-to-year contract, and the CFA has the final say on their playing status.
Bai calls Gregg "a super woman" for her efforts to bring the Chinese here. The admiration is mutual. Gregg said she has been awed by the Chinese players and their willingness to move on short notice to play in a new league in a new country and with an uncertain future.
"It's such a big decision," Gregg said. "You realize how little they were involved. For them to make that decision that leap of faith is a real tribute to them."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide