With their star athletes taking the ongoing 2012 Olympic Games by storm, China PR's sports fans are enjoying a growing sense of anticipation that the world’s most populace nation will be able to defend their dominant status from Beijing 2008.
However, recent years have not been so kind to Chinese women’s football, with the Steel Roses last year missing out on the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament for the first time, having also missed the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup™.
Silver-medallists at Atlanta 1996, China’s failure to reach London 2012 came as a major setback for the women's game in the east Asian nation. Aiming to rebuild a strong base, they focused on the age group levels last year and their respective youth sides duly qualified for this year's two FIFA competitions.
First impressing were their U-20 team, who sealed a return to the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan last October. The U-17 side went on to steal the show a month later, going through Asia's hard-fought qualifying section to claim their inaugural appearance at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Azerbaijan 2012.
And the latter's achievement looks even more spirited considering the manner in which maiden qualification was achieved. Needing a point in the closing game against a formidable Korea Republic, who were crowned world champions at Trinidad & Tobago 2010, the Chinese secured a goalless draw to progress and dethrone the Koreans.
"Qualifying for our first World Cup came as a huge boost for us," coach Zhang Chonglai told FIFA.com. "By doing so we not only sprang the biggest surprise in qualifying, but also helped pave the road for further progress. In a sense, it serves to be an encouragement for the women's game in our country in general."
Taking heart from their showings on the Asian scene, China will understandably enter their global debut in Azerbaijan next month aiming to break new ground. "Our initial goal is to progress to the second round," said Zhang, who began the team's qualifying as assistant to former coach Fan Xuewei before taking over the reins shortly after their successful qualification campaign. Should everything go to plan, a semi-final berth is what he and his team are expecting.
But for the first-timers to stun their opponents, the experienced coach is all too aware they must improve their mentality to add to the team's fitness and technique. "There are few established stars at the youth level, which means the teams are close to each other," said Zhang. "The hard and consistent performers then have better chances to win."
Not surprisingly, he has focused on the psychological side in the team's build-up since his appointment, getting his charges exposed to strong international opposition as much as possible. And the improvement was in evidence as the team stormed into the final in an eight-nation international tournament in Russia last March, where they fell to inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup champions Korea DPR 3-1.
And they nearly caught their famously strong neighbours by surprise in a June friendly, taking a 2-0 first-half lead only to concede two late goals to draw 2-2. "From losing by big margins against Korea DPR previously to making the same opponents sweat, our players have shown they are becoming mentally stronger and are capable of mounting a serious challenge for the rivals," Zhang stated proudly.
China open against Uruguay on 23 September before taking on two-time participants Germany three days later. The closing group game pits them against Ghana, who failed to progress beyond the group phase in the previous edition.
While both Germany and Ghana boast strong international experience, it is the opening encounter against fellow debutants Uruguay that Zhang thinks they must win if they are to progress from the group.
"The Uruguay match is key for us," he stated. "Because an opening victory will provide the team with a timely morale-booster and set us in a good position ahead of the next game against Germany. At such youth level, the opening victors always have the advantage to go through."