With women's soccer enjoying mass appeal as the World Cup approaches, China's "Steel Roses" are determined to bloom on the biggest stage in the hope of rejuvenating the game back home.
Once a force to be reckoned with, the Chinese squad has struggled in recent years and has slipped to 15th in the world rankings.
However, with Asian player of the year Wang Shuang among their ranks, the shoots of recovery have begun to sprout and the team is setting the bar high for the finals in France.
"The ultimate goal is always to win the World Cup every time the opportunity presents itself. This year is no exception," Team China head coach Jia Xiuquan bullishly proclaimed this week in Shanghai at a ceremony staged by Nike to launch the squad's World Cup campaign.
"Even knowing we are no longer among the world's best, it motivates our players to make the utmost effort to try to achieve breakthroughs for their generation and to keep up with the pace of the top contenders."
The Women's World Cup, which runs from June 7 to July 7 in nine French cities, will feature 24 teams, first doing battle in a six-group pool stage before being whittled down to the last-16 knockout phase.
Jia's lofty ambitions for the quadrennial tournament is indicative of how desperately the women's game in China craves attention and support.
China's silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics catapulted the women's game into the spotlight. Then in 1999, a losing World Cup final appearance against host the United States triggered a fresh wave of investment within the State-run sports system.
Spearheaded by star striker Sun Wen, FIFA's Female Player of the Century, that '99 run endeared the team to the public and earned the tough-tackling squad its metal moniker.
However, over the past two decades, the Steel Roses have wilted, due in part to a lack of investment.
Although China's women outdo their male counterparts in terms of international results, the eight-team Chinese Women's Super League is more akin to the men's third tier than the top-flight CSL in terms of attendance, player salaries, sponsor interest and coverage.
Having witnessed the decline over the past 20 years, former national team captain Han Duan became emotional when she touched the women's World Cup trophy during the Beijing stop of its China tour on Tuesday.
"It all depends on how close we can get to it," said Han, a striker who represented China at two World Cups (2003 and 2007).
"It's funny but sad at the same time that people joke that female players are more likely to catch a cold because the heat (of attention) comes and goes so quickly."
Han, who retired in 2013, said her biggest career regret is failing to reach the World Cup semifinals as host in 2007.
"The landscape of women's soccer in our country would've been changed if we had performed better at home," reflected the 35-year-old Liaoning native.
"Hopefully this year they can take it a step further than we did,"
Team China's current crop is pinning its hopes on a new core of world-class players comprised of Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Wang Shuang, prolific scorer Wang Shanshan and captain Wu Haiyan, who plays at rightback.
After an intensive month-long training stint in Australia, China last month fell to three chastening defeats to Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands at the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
The squad will kick off another four-nation invitational in Wuhan, Hubei province, from April 1-10, — but this time featuring ace Wang Shuang, whose PSG team on Wednesday lost its Champions League quarterfinal 3-2 on aggregate to Chelsea despite a 2-1 second-leg win for the host in Paris.
China will open its World Cup Group B campaign against Germany on June 8, followed by a match against South Africa six days later before squaring off against Spain on June 18.
Qualification has earned China a share of a $480,000 investment from FIFA for its Cup preparations, while each domestic club providing national team players will be reimbursed by the governing body.
Sara Booth, FIFA's head of women's competitions, expects the support will provide a big assist for the Chinese Football Association.
"If China does well (in France) I hope there will be a lasting impact in the country," she said in Beijing on Tuesday.
"The important thing is that underneath all that, the CFA is getting the grassroots involved and getting the structure right in the local leagues to make sure the success in France will have a long-term benefit."
(Source: China Daily)
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