Tabitha Chawinga and Elizabeth Addo call one another “twin sister” and together they are making waves in Chinese women’s football – while also helping each other acclimatise off the pitch.
The African duo are instrumental to the ambitions of Chinese Women’s Super League team Jiangsu Suning, with Chawinga banging in the goals up front and Addo pulling the strings in midfield.
The 23-year-old Chawinga is already captain of Malawi and Jocelyn Precheur, Jiangsu’s French coach, is convinced that she is destined for the very top.
But it hasn’t been an easy path.
Chawinga grew up playing football with boys in her village and was often verbally abused by onlookers who called her a prostitute, saying she was just doing it to sleep with them.
The 25-year-old Addo is Ghana’s skipper and a quiet but steely presence who was raised in an area on the outskirts of the capital Accra known as “Survival City” because it is so tough.
Compared with that, being professional footballers in China’s league and living in Nanjing, a major city near Shanghai, is a breeze.
Tabitha Chawinga (right) stretches during training with her Jiangsu Suning team in Nanjing
But as the only foreign players at Nanjing-based Jiangsu, and with just a few words of Mandarin between them, Addo and Chawinga lean heavily on one another.
Neither will be involved at the Women’s World Cup in France when it starts next week because Ghana and Malawi did not qualify, but they will be watching from afar.
“We spend a lot of time together, walking in the streets, eat sometimes in a restaurant together if we don’t want to cook,” Chawinga, the chattier of the duo, told AFP.
“We joke together. She’s a nice girl to me, she’s like my sister.
“It’s the truth – we are just only the two foreigners, and from Africa, so we take care of each other like sisters. We are twins.”
– Broken teeth –
Neither had been to China before joining Jiangsu, who have lifted one domestic cup this season and are in the semi-finals of the other.
Chawinga arrived from Swedish football in early 2018 and has been prolific, hitting 51 goals in 34 games to embellish her reputation as one of the best strikers in women’s football.
‘Twin sisters’: Elizabeth Addo (right) and Tabitha Chawinga enjoy a break during training with Jiangsu Suning in Nanjing
She was joined in eastern China by attacking midfielder Addo in March this year, the two reuniting after playing together in Sweden for 18 months.
Chawinga laughs at the reaction they get on the streets of Nanjing, where there are few black faces.
She said: “Many people look at us and think that maybe we are from the same parents, same house. People look at us a lot, like, ‘Hey, you look similar’.”
Their footballing paths also have similarities because they competed against boys when they were younger and were taunted for their love of the game.
Chawinga was a goalkeeper but aged 10 got smashed in the mouth by a boy’s knee – “breaking my teeth” – and decided to play as a striker instead.
But as good as she was, Chawinga was regularly targeted for insults.
“People talk a lot, ‘Hey, she just plays football, look at her, she goes to sleep with the boys’.
“But I didn’t care, I knew the truth myself,” she said.
There were also objections from her mother.
“My mum also used to fight me and say ‘Don’t play football, girls can’t play football with the boys, stop playing football’.
“Now she’s very happy for me to play football.”
– ‘Careful with my sister’ –
Addo arrived in China after stints in several countries including Sweden, the United States and Australia.
She and Chawinga have lined up together half-a-dozen times so far for Jiangsu, with Addo setting up three of her friend’s goals and scoring three times herself.
“When I have the ball, she knows what I’ll do next,” said Addo.
Jiangsu Suning players take a break during training
“I know her movement – when she’s ‘flying’ and when she’ll stay.”
Addo paused when asked about the prospect of playing against Chawinga in an international.
Then she said, smiling broadly: “That would be great, I can’t wait for that day.
“But maybe I would mark someone else and I would tell my players, ‘Hey, be careful with my twin sister’.”