The Chinese government recently announced an ambitious plan to transform the country into “a world football superpower” by the year 2050. As part of its goal, China hopes to turn the women’s national football team into a world-class squad within the next decade and a half.
The women’s national team is 12th in the FIFA rankings. Last year, China garnered international attention after the women managed to win a game in the World Cup for the first time since 2007. It went on to the semi-finals. Before the tournament, they were viewed as underdogs, but the better-than-expected World Cup results for the Chinese team with the nickname Steel Roses has given it hope to make it to the top of world football.
From the late 1980s through the 1990s, China had a good run in football. The national team then hit a rough patch and failed to qualify for both the 2011 World Cup held in Germany and the 2012 Olympics in London. But everything started to change last year. Now, the women’s national team is flying to the Rio Olympics with the dream of, at least, repeating the glory from Atlanta 1996, when the squad won the silver medal after reaching the finals against host the United States.
The opponents in the group stage in Rio are already known. It won’t be an easy path for the Chinese. The first match will be against host Brazil. China will have to play well if it wants to move on. The Steel Roses already know what it feels like to defeat Brazil. They did it in the semi-finals of the 1996 Olympics. South Africa – thought to be the weakest team in the group – will be China’s opponent for the second match. For the third and final game in the group stage, China will play against Sweden, once again a powerful adversary. The Swedish women are 6th in the FIFA ranking, but they also lost against China in 1996.
There is more good news for the Chinese. In the past 11 games, China is undefeated (7 wins and 4 draws) giving the Chinese reasons for optimism against Brazil. But there is some concern. In February, China’s national women’s football team announced on its official Weibo account that its star goalkeeper Wang Fei had left the team for health reasons. The surprise decision may have been connected to an injury she suffered after she accidentally cut her finger while cooking. Wang Fei was one of the stars of the team in Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Losing Wang Fei does open up other opportunities for Chinese players. Manager Bruno Bini hasn’t decided yet who will be in the final group of Chinese players in Brazil.
“I will only put them into the final lineup if they can perform better, then they will have chance to attend the Rio Olympicsl,” he said.
One thing is certain, they all want to become the next Sun Wen, the best Chinese player of all time. She made 152 appearances from 1990 to 2006 for the Chinese national team and scored 106 goals. Sun Wen won third place in the FIFA World Player of the Year award twice, the first time in 2001 and then again in 2002. She was voted the FIFA Female Player of the Century along with American Michelle Akers in 2002. Sun Wen achieved both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup and became the first woman to be nominated for player of the year award by the Asian Football Confederation. She is the best inspiration for a new generation of China women´s football ahead of the Rio Olympics.
Luís Aguilar is a CCTV America guest contributor. He is journalist, sports commentator, and the author of ten books published in Portugal about football. His articles represent his views alone.