This article is part of the Guardian’s 2019 Women’s World Cup Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organizations from the 24 countries who have qualified for France. The Equalizer, as part of the network, will profile each of the 24 countries.
Last year in September, China was just one step away from their first Asian title since 2007 in the Jakarta Asian Games, before being beaten by a last-minute goal from Japan in the final. The young generation of the Iron Rose are attempting to restore their glory on the way of rejuvenation, yet they are still some distance from the status during their prime time in the 1990s.
China’s basic formation is 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. The defense, led by the captain Wu Haiyan, is pretty settled but the rest of the team’s tactics depend on where the key forward, Wang Shuang, plays. She often has a free role, although she has looked somewhat jaded recently after a stunning start to the season with PSG.
She is, however, expected to be firing on all cylinders again at the World Cup after which has been a largely successful season in France, and she can expect support from local fans when China take on South Africa at Parc des Princes in their second group game.
Partnering her up front will be Wang Shanshan, who is a terrific goalscorer. The 29-year-old striker was the top scorer of the 2018 Asian Games with 12 goals, including an incredible nine goals in the game against Tajikistan. Still in red-hot form, by mid-May she had scored four goals in five international matches this year. These two are more than capable of troubling any defense in the world.
There is an unexpected hole to fill in defensive midfielder after the vice-captain, Zhang Rui, was dropped from the initial 27-woman squad announced in April. She had been capped more than 140 times and her experience will be sorely missed. Yang Lina, another option for that role, lacks international experience while Tan Ruyin, a talented holding midfielder who played in the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, has just returned to the squad recently after a long-term injury.
Another problem for the coach, Jia Xiuquan, is that China often get off to a slow start. In their three games at this year’s Algarve Cup, for example, four of the five goals they let in during the first half of games. They will be punished if the trend continues in France.
Jia Xiuquan was appointed by CFA as the head coach of the Iron Rose in May 2018 after the Asian Cup. Before taking the helm, the 55-year-old coach was in charge of China men’s U-18 team. Though having had no experiences in women’s football, Jia Xiuquan had rich coaching experiences in several top-division Chinese clubs including Bayi, Shanghai Shenhua and Henan Jianye during the past two decades. In 2010, he was questioned and assisted the police in a match-fixing case but he was not arrested.
Wang Shuang is sometimes referred to as ‘the female Leo Messi’ in China and has shone in Europe with her silky skills. The veteran attacker ended her first season at Paris Saint-Germain with seven goals and eight assists in 18 appearances in Ligue 1 and one goal and one assist in the UEFA Champions League. She was voted the AFC Women’s Player of the Year 2018 and, at 24, is the symbol of Chinese women’s football’s rejuvenation.
Did you know?
After moving to France, Wang Shuang quickly bought a water filter – but not because she was worried about water contamination. Instead, she joked, she made the purchase so that she wouldn’t lose her hair, having noticed that so many Frenchmen, even those in their 30s, had gone bald.
Brief history of women’s football in China
Chinese women’s football surfaced in the late 1970s after the Chinese economic reform and general opening-up. Established in 1983, the national team dominated the following seven editions of the Asian Cup until 2001.
China also played a leading role in the early years of the women’s game internationally and hosted the inaugural World Cup in 1991, in which they finished fifth. The late 1990s was the golden era for the team and they earned the nickname the Iron Rose after the two silver medals in the 1996 Olympic Games and the 1999 World Cup. The amazing 5-0 semifinal triumph against Norway in 1999 and the subsequent defeat on penalties against the hosts USA will be remembered for a long time. The best player of that golden generation, Sun Wen, was named joint FIFA Female Player of the Century with U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers.
After all that success, however, the Iron Rose went on a downward trajectory and they have not won the Asian Cup since 2007. It is not difficult to understand why – although they were admired for how they did internationally compared to the men’s team – as very few girls play football and the interest in the game is low. So when the women’s game took off in other countries, China were left behind.
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Peng Shimeng was the first-choice goalkeeper at the 2018 Asian Cup despite being only 19, replacing the veteran Zhao Lina, and is expected to start in goal in France. Peng Shimeng kept 15 clean sheets in 23 appearances last season, only conceding 11 times with Jiangsu Suning and was named Best Goalkeeper of the Season.
What is the realistic aim for China in France and why?
The Iron Rose advanced to the quarterfinals four years ago in Canada and Jia Xiuquan has said that he would love to go one step further in France. Given the quality of the team, another appearance in the last eight might be more realistic. Even that might be difficult considering they are in the same group as Germany, Spain and South Africa, so if they progress as one of the best third-placed teams they would meet a group winner in the round of 16.
Annual budget for the women’s national team (compared to men’s):
The budgets for CFA’s men’s and women’t teams are confidential but it is common knowledge that the men have a bigger budget. However, after the women’s team finished second at the Asian Games in 2018, Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, congratulated the players at the stadium and promised to invest in the team.
Registered female players:
This is also confidential, probably partly because a lack of data from some local football associations. In 2016, Chinese State Television reported that the number of registered senior female players is less than 600. Taking in all age groups it is no more than 1,500.
Bi Yuan writes for Titan Sports.
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