Football is deeply important to cancer survivor Stella Liu. The 14-year-old Hong Kong youth team player remembers sitting in a hospital bed in Shanghai, watching match after match for hours on end.
“Football’s always been there for me,” says the Harrow International School student, who is known for her lightning pace on the pitch. “When I was sick, I’d watch every single football show on in China – anything football-related.”
Stella was born in the US and moved with her parents from Miami, Florida, to Shanghai at the age of five. That was when her health began to deteriorate, and she was diagnosed with leukaemia.
“Honestly, I don’t remember much. I kept getting sick and we didn’t really know why so we went to the doctor one week – right after we moved to Shanghai,” she says. “When they first saw me, the doctors there were like ‘This kid has leukaemia’. They looked at my symptoms, then I had treatment ... chemo for two years. I had to shave my hair and go to the hospital all the time. I missed school for a whole year, but the teachers were really supportive.”
Football-mad Stella’s first taste of “the beautiful game” was during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Seeing her daughter transfixed by the sport, Stella’s mother bought her a ball. It marked the start of Stella’s road to recovery – a journey she would complete, triumphantly, three years later.
Stella now lives in Hong Kong, having moved here with her family during the last stages of her chemotherapy. She’s very clear about one thing: she does not want people to feel sorry for her. She has worked her way up to represent Hong Kong at U15s and even plays with the Hong Kong Football Club U18s women’s team.
“I don’t really want to use [my illness] as a way to make people feel bad,” says Stella. “The best thing is to keep positive and just be driven. Have a goal and ... work towards that goal.”
Stella helped guide Team Hong Kong to a respectable fourth-place at last year’s All-China Youth Games in Guangzhou. It was there she learned that competitive football requires a load of hard work, determination and sacrifice.
“It was a [tournament] between sports schools from each major city in China – then Hong Kong was invited. We were the odd ones out; every other team was a sports school,” says Stella. “It was really, really long, longer than any competition [I have experienced]. We got really close as a team.”
Even as she competes in national games, Stella must find time for schoolwork. Like many teen athletes, she struggles to deal with the endless torrent of homework and assignments.
“I really like being efficient. Sometimes I might be really tired but I still finish my work first, even if I have no time to chill,” she says, before joking: “I’m still an Asian kid!”
Stella’s American roots remain strong, too. She’s a big fan of the US women’s national team, and has even had the chance to meet some of its star players. While spending the summer of 2018 training in the US state of Missouri, she brushed shoulders with the likes of US women’s captain Alex Morgan and fan-favourite Megan Rapinoe.
“I saw this camp on Instagram called Fantasy Camp, so I went to Kansas City and trained with some ex-national team members,” she explains. “We got to watch the Tournament of Nations [a national women’s tournament] ... then we met the players.”
But it was World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist Tobin Heath who really left Stella starstruck when they met in the tunnel, post-match: “I was on the verge of crying and I never cry, but yeah, it was emotional,” she recalls.
The trip was an eye-opener in other ways, too. “I kind of got the feel for the US skill level. They’re way more physical, of course, and just have a better all-round mentality,” she says.
Having experienced the rush of meeting her hero, Stella is more motivated than ever to earn a football scholarship in the US. Women’s professional football is still relatively new globally – something which worries Stella’s mum – but Stella has faith in her abilities.
“My family are really supportive of me, although less so about playing football,” she admits. “My main goal, or the reason why I keep playing football, is to get into a good university. I’m planning to go to America, and it’s a big deal there to have a sport. I think that’s the main reason my mum lets me play!”
Favourite teams: Real Madrid and Inter Miami
Favourite player: Tobin Heath
Favourite post-training food: Bubble tea – it’s not the healthiest, but always bubble tea.