In the world of Chinese sport, the national women’s volleyball squad stands head and shoulders above many of the country’s other teams. While the men’s soccer team has yet to win a World Cup match and the men’s basketball squad not made it into the top five, the women volleyballers have long been among the international elite. Just last month, they came away World Cup winners – again – just in time for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic . The win is the latest in a long line that began with their first crown in 1981. The success is a source of intense national pride and is based not just on talent but also in part on state support and a physical barrier, analysts say. When the team first won the World Cup, China was only just emerging from the decade of turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and rejoining the international community. The win was instantly headline news, with People’s Daily , the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, dedicating its front page to the victory on November 17, 1981. The women were held up as inspiration for a tired country. “Learn from girls of the women’s volleyball team and promote the women’s volleyball team’s spirit to make China strong,” the newspaper said in an editorial. Actress Gong Li to play volleyball legend Lang Ping in movie The team continued to triumph in big matches, going on to win the world championships in 1982 and 1986, Olympic gold in 1984 and the World Cup in 1985. Members of the team became household names in China and their stories were included in school textbooks in the 1980s and 1990s. The team’s fortunes ebbed as key players stepped down and from 1986 to 2003, and China sank in global rankings. But in 2003, under coach Chen Zhonghe, the team returned to form to win gold at the World Cup. A year later, they were Olympic champions again. Over the decades, results have been affected by injuries and retirement but the team’s title haul stands at three Olympic gold, two World Championships and five World Cups. September’s win cements their place at the top of the international rankings while the men’s team is 20th in the world standings. Volleyball is a widely played sport in China’s schools but nowhere near as popular as soccer and basketball – two sports that have been a consistent source of disappointment in terms of international competition. In 2016, China set out a grand plan to become a soccer superpower by 2050 and has spent hundreds of millions of yuan on buying foreign players. And last month, the State Council said sport would be a pillar industry of the national economy by 2035. But the women’s national volleyball team was a success without these plans. In no other team sport except table tennis has China been so strong – and even then the country’s dominance is waning as Japanese players mount a bigger challenge. Jin Shan, director of the Sports Culture Research Centre at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, said China lagged in soccer and basketball because the sports were highly commercialised in Western countries. “As long as Western people focus [on these sports], it’s hard for us to win championships in them,” Jin said. But that is not the case with volleyball, for which students are also selected and trained at a young age. The net also helped overcome differences, he said. “European and American players are generally taller and stronger than us. A net in the middle can avoid body blows between the players,” Jin said, adding that there was a bigger difference in strength in the men’s sport. With its win last month, the women’s volleyball team is again being held up as a model for others. “The women’s volleyball team is not only the role model for other sports’ players to learn from, but also a spirit symbol to motivate Chinese people to be independent and strong,” one official newspaper said in an editorial. “It’s meaningful to review the path of how China’s women’s volleyball team came to the top of the world, amid perceptions that Chinese can’t play big-ball sports well and Chinese people have poor collective awareness.” The triumph was sealed when President Xi Jinping greeted the team – led by Lang Ping, the first person to win Olympic gold as a player and coach – at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 30, the eve of the 70th anniversary celebrations. “[You] have bolstered the whole country’s patriotic spirit and enhanced people’s confidence and pride for our nation,” he said.