China get their 2015 Women’s World Cup underway in Edmonton on Saturday afternoon (Sunday morning local time), with the Steel Roses bidding to continue their record of at least a quarter-final berth in every tournament in which they have participated.
Runners up in 1999, it is now some time since China were seen as one of the leading forces in women’s football and, indeed, their dominance in Asia has also come to an end with Japan now the region’s leading side. However, there is real intent to see the side return to challenging the game’s elite and that process begins in Canada this week.
Unfortunately, having steadily built under coach Hao Wei over the past three years, recent results have not been kind to the side. China have not won in their past 10 official international fixtures, with good results in behind-closed-door friendlies not enough to put a positive spin on what is a worrying trend. Having impressed greatly in 2014—including taking Japan to extra-time in the semi-final of the Asian Cup—they are now a team worryingly bereft of confidence.
— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) June 6, 2015
At a time when there is growing good feeling about women’s football in China, with players being used extensively by Nike in advertisements and a new Super League competition established, the Football Association have handicapped their own side’s preparations. It is no coincidence that the downturn in results coincided with reports that coach Hao Wei and his staff were going unpaid. Much of the hard work of the past two years in building the side’s self-belief has been undone. Talk of respecting the women’s game and increased professionalism must begin from the top.
There will be nothing spectacular on show in Canada, with Hao Wei not a coach inclined to throw caution to the wind and attack. China’s aim will be solidity and, from there, to see if they can pinch results through their talented attacking players. This is a side built upon the principles of endeavour and ensuring the game’s basics are done properly. Hao’s side has developed an unfortunate habit of conceding sloppy goals when playing well, perhaps explaining his determination to see simplicity from his troops.
China’s players may insist they are arriving at the competition with the title in mind but they will not win the tournament. However, with several new faces included in what is one of the tournament’s youngest squads, this is a group for whom the 2019 competition perhaps represents their best chance of success. The hope must be then that they gain the required confidence and experience from this year’s competition to propel them into the next four year cycle.
Realistically, the aim is to advance from the group stage and from that point any further progress will be treated as a real success for the side. Hosts Canada will be first up in a game which could be crucial to the side’s hopes at the tournament. A positive display or result could be enough to set the wheels in motion for a good overall showing, but it will be difficult against a strong host nation who will enjoy great support from the Edmonton crowd.
Beyond that, though, both Netherlands and New Zealand are beatable opponents and rank not dissimilarly to China according to FIFA’s latest calculations. If the Steel Roses can find some form, there is no reason why they cannot comfortably advance to the second stage—especially given the availability of four third-place “lucky loser” spots in the last 16.
There should be more to come from China’s women in years ahead, with government reform plans and a growing number of private academies aiming to return the side to the very top of the game.
Key Player: Wang Shanshan
China enter the tournament without their leading scorer from both last year’s Asian Cup and Asian Games in Yang Li, with the Jiangsu striker ruled out after a string of injuries in 2015.
With Yang’s partnership with No. 10 Li Ying having previously been a focal point of the side’s attacking play, much pressure will now be on Tianjin’s Wang Shanshan to come in and take up the goalscoring burden.
Wang’s place in the national side has never been stable and, indeed, for a long while she was used as a makeshift full-back. However, the striker impressed in recent outings against England and has both the physicality and desire to unsettle defenders.
If Wang should start alongside Li, China’s attacking unit will be combative. The question is whether they possess the guile to break down the tournament’s better defences.
One to Watch: Wang Shuang
Since being nominated for the AFC Young Player of the Year award in 2013, Wang has had a difficult time with injuries but remains perhaps China’s most naturally talented attacking player.
Called into the national team at the age of 17, Wang has already amassed 18 months experience playing in Korea with Daejeon SportToto where she was named MVP as the side swept to the Korean FA Cup title the season before last.
— Andrew Gibney (@Gibney_A) June 6, 2015
Injury has hampered her build up to the coming match with Canada, which she will likely need to start from the bench, but when in place she will be the side’s chief creator and set-piece coordinator.
Now 20 years old, she is one of a talented group who featured in last year’s Under-20 World Cup who will play a big part in China’s future.
Prediction: Last 16
Reaching the first knockout round will be a par score for Hao Wei’s side at the tournament and they appear in relaxed mood ahead of Saturday’s opener with Canada.
To move beyond that stage into the quarter-final would be a major success for a side very much still in formation. It is time for a new generation of leaders to step forward—the likes of Wu Haiyan, Ma Jun and Wang Fei prime candidates—to build a platform for improvement over the next four years.
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