China's Godfather takes charge

If experience counts for anything, China PR could not have chosen any better for their new women's coach than Shang Ruihua. Seventeen years on from guiding the Chinese team to the quarter-finals in the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991, the 63-year-old has once again been handed the national team reins along with the task of leading the hosts to a creditable finish at August's Olympic Games.

As the man who laid the foundations of the Steel Roses side that won silver at Atlanta 1996 and then at the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 1999, Shang is known as the godfather of the women's game in China. caught up with him recently to talk about his re-appointment as successor to Elisabeth Loisel, the team's prospects, and his plans for preparing the players for Beijing 2008. Coach Shang, you have been handed back the position you held 17 years ago. Is it an exciting moment?
Shang Ruihua:
I wouldn't say exciting but it is always the ultimate honour to serve your country. What I have in mind for the time being is the commitment and responsibility to take the team to a higher level.

Your appointment came following the team's disappointing performances at the recent EAFF Championship and the Algarve Cup, where China finished fourth-bottom out of 12 sides. It seems you are facing a big challenge?
You are right as the team is undergoing a difficult time now. But after working as a women's football coach for so many years, I have a strong belief in our potential of competing against the world's best. The team may have suffered setbacks in the recent regional and international tournaments, but the results were by no means the accurate reflection of their strengths and levels. They should have done much better had everything gone well.

What is the most urgent task facing you?
Top of the priority list is rebuilding the team's confidence. To make this happen, we must do the utmost to ensure the team work hard for the common cause. We must put the disjointed feeling aside and bring back the harmonious spirit among the players. When it comes to the tactics, what matters most is teamwork - the team need to play well as a group.

How do you compare the women's game today to that of 17 years ago, when you were in charge of the national team?
Things have improved a lot at age group levels as we have a bigger pool today from which we can select the national team. There are more girls playing football now and we have a total of 60 teams at the different youth levels, including U-16 and U-18. However, in the early 1990s many players changed to football from other sports, where they had already excelled. Their athletic talents enabled them to quickly develop into good footballers, so it was no wonder that we produced world class stars such as Sun Wen and Liu Ailing back then.

Do you mean that, today, China is suffering from a lack of really talented players?
The girls today started playing much earlier and they received the basic training well. What they are lacking lies in the physical and athletic sides and these are the two areas where they need to improve through hard and specific training.

You guided the Steel Rosebuds to second place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Russia 2006. How many players from that team will now figure in your senior plans?
We have eight of them in the current squad but I will watch and test the youngsters and they will have to prove themselves in training and friendlies to secure their places in the final Olympic squad.

How do you build up the team for the Olympic competition?
We will call the players up for a series of training camps, including a trip to the Netherlands from the 1st to the 8th of May, where we will play a couple of friendlies against local teams. Moreover, the Women's Asian Cup [28 May to 8 June] will provide us with a precious chance to test players and formations in the build-up to the Olympic Games.