Sun shines on Smith

It was not a textbook interview. A journalist had just finished speaking to Sun Wen about her relationship with fellow women's football legend Kristine Lilly when his interviewee elected to dictate the topic of conversation. "I think England's Kelly Smith will be the player of the tournament," the joint-FIFA Women's Player of the Century declared out of nowhere.

"She is an outstanding player, one of the very best in the world," the Chinese great continued, her voice bubbling with enthusiasm. "What impresses me most about her is how good she is on the ball. Many Europeans are very good physically, but Smith is technically outstanding. She has so much skill, vision and passing ability. People will be so impressed by how creative she is."

Given the fact that England and their glittering No10 had failed to crop up in conversation prior to Sun Wen's remarks, it is all the more striking that somebody of her prestige chose to initiate conversation about Smith, who will debut on the world stage when the 'Three Lionesses' take on Japan on Tuesday. Not that those who have seen the attacking midfielder in action will disagree with her assessment.

Masterfully combining playmaking and goal-taking duties, the Arsenal ace inspired England through the rigours of qualification, an achievement which denied France and Netherlands a trip to the Far East. Her efforts did not go unnoticed. However, while Smith may be living out a lifelong dream by participating in the FIFA Women's World Cup, such high praise from one of the game's greatest players was beyond her wildest fantasies.

On hearing Sun Wen's comments, England head coach Hope Powell said: "I'm just so pleased for Kelly. She's a great girl who has overcome so much adversity to reach this level, with injuries and so on. It's been very difficult for her - she went through a lot. For someone like Sun Wen, one of the all-time greats, to pay Kelly such compliments just goes to show how much she has achieved."

Powell went on to stress Smith's importance to the team: "She's such a down-to-earth girl. For Kelly, the team comes first. She is surrounded by very good players. They play for each other and have improved significantly as a group. But of course to have Sun Wen say such flattering things is great for Kelly. I'm sure she'll be really pleased."

Pleased is something Smith most certainly was when relayed Sun Wen's words to her. "I'm really shocked to be honest," the 28-year-old said. "To come from Sun Wen... she's an icon in Chinese football, in China and all over the world, a player that everybody knows. I'm gobsmacked that she's said it about me, but I'm obviously thrilled and delighted at the same time. It's such an honour to come from somebody like her."

The name of Sun Wen is, nonetheless, one of many on Smith's list of admirers - a list that appears destined to lengthen further over the coming weeks. Dutch tactician Vera Pauw described the England luminary as "the best player in the world" after her hat-trick propelled England to a 4-0 win over Netherlands in qualifying for a place at China 2007, while former USA coach April Heinrichs insisted she would have been an automatic choice in her all-conquering outfit had she been born Stateside.

Fortunately for Powell and England, Smith was born in Watford, 20-odd miles north-west of London. Incidentally, the town gave birth to ex-footballer Vinnie Jones, though it is in acting that the one-time midfield enforcer achieved greater celebrity. While Smith may be a long way from the bright lights of Hollywood, there is no doubt that she has the quality to illuminate China 2007. No less a judge than Sun Wen thinks so.