China's Steel Rosebuds in full bloom on Thai soil
After a disappointing performance by the country's senior team at the 2004 Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Athens, China's young warriors have brought a smile back to Chinese football fans by reaching the final of the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship in Thailand, eliminating two of the game's biggest hitters, Brazil and Canada en route.
At 7pm (local time) on Saturday in the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, China PR will go head to head with the powerful German side that put paid to the USA's hopes in the semis.
"Germany are a very strong side, but we have been the surprise package of this tournament. We've played against a lot of tough sides in Thailand and we've shown that we can take them on and beat them," said coach Wang Haiming with the kind of self-belief that only comes from reaching a major final.
As his side continue with their preparations for the big day, the affable but taciturn coach would only say that there was nothing in particular about Germany that his team feared, and that he believed his side had a great chance to win. When pressed on why he thought so, he added, "My team have improved a lot recently," and left it at that.
There is no doubting that the Asian side have reached the final on merit. They lost just once, and that was a group game against mighty Brazil (2-1), but by then the Chinese had already assured their place in the last eight with wins over Nigeria (1-0) and Italy (2-1) in Chiang Mai. They then faced a stiff test in the quarter-finals against one of the favourites, Canada, but passed with flying colours (3-1) to set the stage for a superb semi-final win against the fancied Brazilians three days later (2-0).
The agile Zhang Yanru and her well-organized defence will be severely tested on Saturday as Anja Mittag and co. try to succeed where Brazilian predators Marta and Cristiane could not. Germany, for their part, will be keeping a watchful eye on the team's joint top scorers Zhang Ying and Lou Xiaoxu, both deadly on the break and with goals to prove it.
"I am so proud of my team," said the coach immediately after qualifying for the final. "The girls did an outstanding job at the back. Tactically speaking, we were quick and used our heads. We showed everyone today how well we can defend, and we got two or three players on the ball at every opportunity. In five games we've only conceded three goals."
Midfielder Zhang Ying, the author of two goals against Canada, was part of the Chinese Olympic side that went to Athens in the summer. And despite a mere twenty minutes of playing time, coupled with her team's failure to make an impact, the experience served the youngster well. Now a little older and wiser, she is one of the side's most pivotal players. "For some time now, she has been one of the outstanding players in the squad," confirms her coach.
Real progress and renewed confidence
However, the key to success lies in the team and how they perform as a unit. With their confidence sky high, this Chinese side is determined to go all the way. "The girls have great self-belief. Moreover, none of our players have been ruled out by injuries or suspensions, so we'll be at our strongest for the final. The mood in the camp is very positive and we're hopeful that we can do it," says Haiming.
It has been fascinating to watch the team's progress in Thailand. Such has been the quality of their performances that it would now seem that their 0-3 reverse at the hands of Korea Republic in the final of the Asian Championship was merely a blip. The team's hard work and dedication has really paid off, and after the abrupt departure of the Koreans from this championship, China PR have reclaimed their position as top dogs in the Asian women's game. "We've put in an enormous effort to get where we are today," said the proud coach earlier.
"I'm confident that there's a bright future ahead for women's football in China. However, it will be several years before these girls will be ready to make the grade with the senior side," said the coach who some day soon could well figure at the helm of that team.