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Atkins: A new dawn from China’s women?

It’s not too many years since women’s football was widely perceived as a joke among a majority of football supporters. While such an attitude was always unfair on those playing, it has also now become a point of ridicule in itself as the game continues to grow in stature and quality right across the world.

Ladies’ football now receives excellent coverage for major international tournaments, the UEFA Champions League and various professional Super Leagues. The standard is good and games often entertaining. Importantly, it retains the spirit of real football—players remain approachable to the average supporter.

Over the past few days, the China national side have experienced this alternative reality. Training at St. George’s Park—home of England national teams—and then at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium, they have seen some of the best facilities England has to offer.

It is all a far cry from the pictures that emerged of the China Women’s Championship facilities at the end of 2014 back home in which several of the squad will have featured.

The pitches were little better than a local park, players were washing and drying their kit outside dorm rooms and the inadequate food on offer was a major point of consternation. The competition was meant to be the pinnacle of women’s football in China, instead they were being sent supplies by those online who took pity in their plight.

There is now major talk of progress. The new Women’s Super League sponsored by LeTV promises to be a turning point for the sport. There is talk of foreign players being introduced from the second season and salaries for top athletes are now competitive with Japan, Korea and much of Europe.

Having lost several of the national side to Korea over the past two years, this increase in pay from what was often only 3-4000 RMB a month (£300-400) to, in some cases, over 20,000 RMB is important in allowing China’s best players to focus on developing their game.

On Friday, Shanghai Ladies team announced an investment of 20 million RMB to support their challenge for the Super League title, while national team stars Wu Haiyan, Li Ying and Wang Shuang will all play in the second division this year.

Provincial associations are keen to follow orders to invest in the women’s game when also combined with the new football revolution policies announced nationwide, it is easy to see a bright future on the horizon. Those policies will see football taught in schools, thousands of pitches built in each province and better talent identification processes put in place.

However, lessons must be learned. What the players have witnessed in terms of facilities in England should be the standard for the Chinese FA to aim for. Professionalism is not an opt-in opt-out concept, it simply must be all encompassing for the sake of athletes’ careers.

China played two games in England, winning a behind closed doors game 3-1 before losing 2-1 in their official friendly fixture with the Lionesses.

Having fallen behind 2-0 after just 10 minutes in the second fixture, China showed much character to regroup and largely outplay their hosts for much of the remainder of the game. The early mistakes, though, cost them the game and such errors have been a common theme in recent games. Concentration early and late in games is a concern.

The difference between the sides on Thursday was minimal. However, the simple fact was England were more clinical and made better decisions. Technically, there was nothing between the sides.

Given that many of the English side play on good pitches week after week, in televised games and in Champions League competition against many of the world’s best players from Europe and USA, that difference in composure is perhaps understandable. China, while talented, remain a little naive in competitive scenarios.

A lack of confidence, perhaps caused by this relative paucity of big game experience, is evident against better nations. For the opening period in Manchester, the side looked scared of their opponents—they had no need.

The advent of the Women’s Super League will of course help in this regard, especially if high-quality foreign players are added. However, there must be a sustained effort to give the best players platforms to develop. Until now, that has largely been in national team training camps due to the standard of local games. It is not enough.

Goalkeeper Wang Fei is now in Germany and will benefit from her experiences in one of the world’s leading leagues. Others, though, must follow if the likes of youngsters Li Ying, Tan Jiali and Wang Shuang are to maximise their potential.

Just as with the men’s game in China, a local league that can develop top level players will take time to develop and it is evident that a lead group of nations including France, Germany and USA are currently some distance ahead of the rest.

A balance must be struck with regards to retaining bigger names in the local league, whilst also giving players the chance to improve abroad without the pressure of nigh-on monthly call-ups to the national side.

There is no reason for complacency. After all, the lack of overall professionalism in the women’s game is clear from national team head coach Hao Wei’s recent non-receipt of salary. Hao has been a strong leader for this generation of players and deserves better treatment.

World Cup finalists in 1999, China has strong traditions in women’s football and there is no reason they cannot return to the top of the game very quickly with the right policies in place. Upward mobility is easier achieved than for their male equivalents.

Currently ranked just outside the world’s top 15, China are undoubtedly a better side than that number suggests and could challenge at the coming Women’s World Cup.

They must, though, believe in their abilities as a side. While young compared to many rival squads, they have plenty of potential in their ranks and only last year took world champions Japan to extra-time in the semifinal of the Asian Cup.

If they can concentrate and fight for each other, just as they did for the final hour of Thursday’s match, recent results should quickly improve.

China won’t win the World Cup this summer, but a strong knockout round showing would be a major boost from which to launch the CFA’s supposed bright new era of women’s football.

With little expected beyond qualification from the group stage, they can afford to cast aside the fear that has been so inhibitive in recent years.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.



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