Leading the line for China PR at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 will be Han Duan and Ma Xiaoxu, two products of the same northern Chinese city of Dalian. Both forwards display the same no-nonsense approach and tenacity so typical of the region's footballers, yet they could not be more different as regards their age, temperament and routes to success.
Despite coming from different backgrounds, both players shared the same mischievous temperament and passion for sport as girls, often beating the boys at their own game. Recognising his daughter's potential, Han's father played a major role in directing her considerable energies towards a career in football. Han has done a lot of growing up since those carefree early days, though her enthusiasm is still as obvious as ever.
Although she has no qualms about getting stuck in during training, the rough-and-ready striker certainly likes to let her hair down off the pitch. And she does not just let it down - she is known for regularly changing her hair colour. She has attracted plenty of attention for her good looks but if gregarious in the company of her team-mates, Han can cut a mild-mannered figure at other times. When not playing or training, she is happy spending time reading books and making regular additions to her diary; this interest in writing extends to collaborating on an autobiography.
Aged just 19, Han's strike partner, the talented Ma, has always had a reputation for being something of a tomboy. While not as image-conscious as her older team-mate, she is not averse to dying her hair either. Nevertheless, when compliments come her way the feisty forward coyly remarks that she makes little effort with her hairstyle, preferring to let it just go with the flow.
Off the field, Ma is easy-going but not afraid to air her views. She is quick to dispel the notion that she is rebellious, maintaining that she just tells things the way she sees them rather than keeping quiet for the sake of compromise. Even so, she has become known for her prickly temperament. Recently however, the 'Wayne Rooney' of Chinese women's football has learned to become more independent - and perhaps retain her composure - having just returned from Scandinavia where she enjoyed a successful six-month loan spell at Swedish champions Umea.
Fast track to success
Ma has enjoyed what could be described as a rollercoaster ride to the top. In 2006 she took the international scene by storm with a ten-goal haul in five matches as China PR won the AFC U-19 Women's Championship in Malaysia. She then made a decisive contribution to the senior side's triumph at July's AFC Women's Championship, scoring against Korea DPR in the semi-final and against Australia in the final.
She was handed the captain's armband for the U-20 squad in
September and subsequently took China PR all the way to the final
at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006. In the
short space of six months, and at just 18 years of age, she had
made the world sit up and take notice of her talent. Even so, the
promising starlet has since discovered that life at the top can be
tough. In recent months, the demands of representing both the
national U-20 and senior sides have taken their toll and the
striker's form has started to flag. Despite earning encouraging
reviews in the Swedish league, she has struggled to recapture the
form which last year earned her the title of AFC Women's Player
of the Year.
In fact, although earlier this year she broke into head coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors' starting line-up, she endured a barren spell lasting several months which prompted many to suggest she had lost her finishing instinct. Having recently ended her scoring drought in a friendly match, Ma will be keen to reaffirm her immense potential with some stirring performances at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007.
In contrast to her fellow front-runner, team captain Han has taken a slower road to success. As early as 2000, and despite being overshadowed by the inspirational Sun Wen, Han was heralded as one of the brightest new prospects in Chinese football. Nevertheless, it has taken seven long years for the striker to mature into the all-round player she has now become. During her time in the national team, Han spent long periods warming the bench but never gave up, gradually developing her repertoire of skills and biding her time until opportunity arrived.
As she prepares to make her second appearance at the FIFA Women's World Cup, Han looks a more complete player thanks to her seven years of international experience. In only her second warm-up match since Domanski-Lyfors took over the China reins, the striker proudly led out her team wearing the captain's armband and is now playing at the top of her game. Since 2003, the prolific centre-forward has scored 52 goals for the Steel Roses, cementing her reputation as a key member of the team. With Han's clinical finishing and Ma's battling style complementing one another in attack, the tournament hosts will be hoping they can conquer the world over the coming three weeks.