Great expectations mark Shang return
Much has happened during the 15 years since Shang Ruihua guided the Steel Roses to the quarter-finals of the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup back in 1991. The women's game may have evolved over the years but the 61-year-old Shang has shown that in the coaching world, there is no substitute for experience. Since he returned to take charge of the U-20's at the start of the year, Shang has already tasted success. In April, he led the Steel Rosebuds to victory, beating Korea DPR in the AFC U-19 Women's Championship final in Kuala Lumpur.
Shang has long been regarded as a pioneer, one of the figures who laid the foundation of women's football in China PR. During his four year tenure as coach of the senior side between 1987 and 1991, he won two AFC Women Championship titles and a gold medal in the Asian Games. Next month, Shang faces a new challenge as his side are pitted against Nigeria, Finland and Canada in Group B of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship. With less than a month to go before China's opener with Finland on 17 August, the veteran coach sounded optimistic about his team's prospects as he spoke exclusively with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You stepped down as coach of the China senior side back in 1991, what changes have you noticed in the women's game during this time?
Shang Ruihua: A lot has happened. From a coaching point of view, I can see that we are facing a period of transition - partly because there are not so many young players coming through at the moment. In the 1980's there was more choice available. There were a lot of sports schools all over the country where a lot of young girls were regularly practicing football and that gave us a greater range to select from. But today we don't seem to have so many options.
Could this weaken China's dominance in women football in Asia?
We are still one of the major forces in Asia, at least at youth level. An example is that we finished runners-up in Thailand 2004 and we won this year's AFC U-19 Women's Championship.
Other Asian teams seem to be emerging as we saw during the U-19 tournament in Kuala Lumpur this April - how much of a threat will they pose for China PR?
Australia were the biggest surprise. They advanced to Russia 2006 as the Asian Football Confederation's newest member. Like European teams, they are physically strong and tactically, they are very disciplined. Japan play some very neat, fluid football, just like their men's team. Korea DPR are a talented group who always play with fighting spirit but their performances are largely limited by their lack of international experience. If we have an advantage over our Asian rivals maybe it is because we hold regular training camps and tend to play more friendlies that they might do. This means that we tend to go into these tournaments with a higher level of preparation and partly why we are usually the more experienced side.
How have you been preparing the team for the forthcoming FIFA U-20 Women's Championship in Russia this August?
Preparations started from the moment we booked our place in Russia last April and we started our final pre-tournament training camp on 14 July in Kunming. The camp lasts for two weeks during which time we focus on the players' fitness and physical energy. Shortly after the training camp ends, we are due to fly out to Moscow on 6 August.
What difficulties do you expect during the group stage?
The biggest problem for me is that we have four key players missing who are currently playing the AFC Women's Championship in Australia with the senior team and cannot join us until 30 July. My main worry is their fitness - they still have almost half a month to train with the rest of the group but could be quite tired after having just played another competition.
How do you rate your three group rivals?
We have never played against Finland, who are our first rivals in the group stage. We know Nigeria very well and so we will be able to employ our own game plan when we meet them on 20 August. Actually two Nigerian players are currently playing with Tianjin in our women's national league. The last group match with Canada on the 23rd will be decisive but we will have the edge over them mentally after beating them twice during our American tour last month. We lost both of our games against the USA - the first one 5-3 and the second 2-1 but we won both of our other two matches against Canada, beating them 1-0 and 2-0.
What goal have you set for your team this time around?
The expectancy back at home is understandably high given the fact we finished as runners-up in the previous FIFA U-20 Women Championship in Thailand two years ago. This could be an additional pressure for the team but it could also give them greater motivation. For the time being I am only thinking of one thing - progressing from the group stage, because we can only do one thing at a time.