Championship Dreams

Desperate to escape a life of poverty, 11-year-old Tian Tian prepares to try out for China’s biggest soccer academy.

In central China’s Henan province, 11-year-old Yuan Tian Tian is one of 10 girls selected by Bei Jie primary school to train for professional soccer academy trials.

Over six months, she lives between home and school preparing to try out for the biggest soccer academy in the country, Guangazhou Evergrande. As her coach says: “Tian Tian is not the most talented player in my team. But she trains the hardest.”

Tian Tian studies, trains, and lives with her teammates who, like her, are all desperate to escape poverty. At just 11 years old she is seeking a better life, not just for herself but in the hope of providing economic security to her entire family.

In the lead up to the big event, Tian Tian faces many challenges at home. The father who abandoned her pays a rare visit, as her grandfather’s declining health reaches a crisis stage. And as the critical trials approach, her school studies fall behind, placing her opportunity to participate at risk.


By Zhu Yongtao

This story is about the life of Yuan Tian Tian, an 11-year old girl, and a young soccer talent from one of the poorest regions in China.

Both Tian Tian and I are natives of Henan province, the most populous province in China with a population of over 100 million. Due to overpopulation and a lack of local economic opportunities, every year millions of Henan residents go to other provinces for work.

 About the filmmakers 
Zhu Yongtao is a native of Henan province, China. He has been making documentary films for 15 years exclusively about his home region. His first feature documentary film, God’s Arrangement, which chronicles the relocation of a church facing eviction orders, was completed in 2013.
Ian Wang (producer) was born in Beijing, China. He studied filmmaking and creative writing in the United States. Currently he teaches at the Zhejiang University of Media & Communications in Hangzhou, China. He has attended the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and also the Tokyo Talent Campus at the Tokyo FilmEx Film Festival. His short film Tanaka’s Happy Farm received the Jury Award from 2012 Hangzhou Asian Film Festival. He is completing his first feature film, The Deadline, an black comedy about a fictitious US immigration video contest. 

You will find Henan people in the kitchens of every restaurant in Beijing and on the assembly lines of every factory in Guangdong. The lives of these workers are arduous and unstable but they must persevere just to collect enough savings to feed their families. For Tian Tian, if she wants to escape the life of a migrant worker, excelling at soccer is her only hope.

Tian Tian was born into a very poor rural family and was abandoned by her mother after birth. She was raised by her grandparents who harvest peppers for a living. She does not own cleats or jerseys; even the football she plays with is borrowed from other friends. However, she is full of passion for the sport because she knows this is the one opportunity she has to change her life.

In Linying County, where Tian Tian lives, there exist over 500 village soccer teams. In the past, many star players from these teams have been handpicked to develop further in professional clubs. Soccer has now become a prime opportunity for rural children to escape a humdrum fate.

If Tian Tian does well at soccer right now, she will get a chance to study at one of the few private soccer academies in China, such as the Guangzhou Evergrande. This will guarantee her not only proper soccer training, but also a solid education that will provide her with a foundation for a better life, even if she does not pursue the sport later on.

Starting from the fall of 2013, Tian Tian will move from her village to the county township, where she has already been selected to play soccer at Bei Jie Primary School. The school is home to one of the top youth soccer teams in China.

Every year the school recruits all the best young players from the region. These players come from poor family backgrounds. They have no grass fields to play on, no professional coaches, and only basic training facilities. Yet at the same time, they must win the different county, municipal, and provincial championships in order to get a chance to try out for professional soccer academies, which is the key to a better future for them.

What difficulties will these children have to overcome and how will their lives be affected along this journey?

This story aims to capture all the different obstacles and emotions these young soccer talents experience in the span of a school year. Soccer is not only a fun sport to these girls, but a dream with life-changing possibilities.

As an update to this story as we have had an extraordinary response to Episode 2 of Viewfinder from China, Championship Dreams. Tian Tian recently started school at the Henan Provincial Sports Academy.

If you would like more information about her situation and her aspirations you can contact the director, Zhu Yongtao, and his producer, Ian Wang, at for more information about Tian Tian.