China women's coach Ma Liangxing recently guided his team to the AFC Women's Asian Cup and saw teenage striker Ma Xiaoxu crowned as the player of the tournament. In spite of this double success, the 48-year-old is happy to keep a low profile.
Ma is considered to be the country's leading women's coach. As well as enjoying a stint with the national side several years ago, he has also managed to guide Shanghai's women's team to 19 national titles. Because of his personal success and the pedigree of China's squad, he is under no illusions that expectancy in the host country for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup will be high.
Just prior to the team's training camp in the United States that starts on August 16, Ma sat down with FIFA.com to talk about the team's performances, prospects and the recent retirement of Sun Wen.
FIFA.com: What do you see as the significance of winning the recent AFC Women's Asian Cup?
Ma Liangxing: Well, we wouldn't say that we are back to our best just yet. We are still in the middle of the rebuilding process and preparing for next year's World Cup. But I am happy to see that the team went through all kinds of difficulties to win the tournament and the victories are a timely boost to the squad's morale and confidence.
After losing to Korea DPR in the 2003 final, was it nice to defeat them this time around?
In 2003, I believe that our team was stronger than Korea DPR. We deserved to win the tournament, as we had the best team in the competition, but we lost to a golden goal. This time around, the tables were turned. We defeated the favourites. They were the stronger team, but we managed to win. That's football.
During your two-year absence from women's football between 2003 and 2005, you surprised many by guiding Zhuhai Zhongbang to the Super League. Was it easy to make the transition between men's and women's football?
Football is the same, no matter who is playing the game. Therefore, there are a lot of similarities in terms of coaching. However, given the physical and psychological differences, you need to cope with similar problems in a different manner.
What made you return to the China women's team after you left following the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2003?
The China Football Association needed me back and so did the team. It was my responsibility to return.
What do you see as being the major problems with the team?
We are still in a transitional period. With most of the 'golden generation' now retired, we have yet to find the players to fill the voids. The problem is that we don't have a huge pool of players to choose from. If we look at the world leading women's teams like Germany and USA, we can see they have so many options in every position. Even in Australia, it's reported that they have 30,000 registered women football players. But in our country, there are only about 1,000.
And now the problem looks more serious as Sun Wen has announced her retirement?
Without a doubt Sun Wen has been the most influential player for our team. Her talents and experience are vital. Without her we will have a hard time.
So you are still expecting her to return to the team?
In June, she sustained an injury to her right leg, which required an operation. She's worried that she will never recover fully - and consequently will never get back to her best. But I would love her to return to the team. If you consider the role played by Zinedine Zidane in helping France reach the Final of Germany 2006 then I would say that Sun Wen could do something similar. She is the sort of player who can make the difference. However, if she does insist that she will not come out of retirement, I will respect her decision. We are great friends.
Who do you think could fill her shoes?
You can never find a replacement for a player like Pele, Maradona or Sun Wen. They are exceptional players.
What about Ma Xiaoxu?
She did well at the Asian Cup and she's a talented striker, but she's a long way behind Sun Wen at the moment.
How do you rate your chances at the FIFA Women's World Cup?
Because we're playing in China, the team will be hoping to perform well and play with confidence in front of our supporters. If we play to our capabilities in the knockout stage, I think we will achieve out goal. But at the moment we are simply not strong enough. If we are hoping to compete against the world's best side, we need to improve a lot over the next 12 months.