After all the hype surrounding China PR's young forwards Han Duan and Ma Xiaoxu going into the FIFA Women's World Cup, it was ironic that it should have been two of the squad's old guard, Li Jie and Xie Caixia, who featured most prominently as the tournament hosts qualified for the quarter-finals.
Indeed central defender Li unexpectedly finds herself her country's top scorer at China 2007 after netting the opening goal in Thursday's 2-0 win over a New Zealand side who had frustrated China's forwards for the best part of an hour. Following on from the free-kick strike with which she had broken the deadlock in China's 3-2 defeat of Denmark in their first match, it underlined just how important this tireless 28-year-old is to the hosts' cause.
Yet watching Li's energetic endeavours, it is hard to
imagine that this fiercely determined woman once nearly quit the
game because of injury. She was all set to take part in USA 1999
when she broke her leg in two places in a friendly against Korea
DPR, an injury that not only ruled her out of the showpiece event,
but also threatened to cut short her career.
It took seven months of painful rehabilitation before she could kick a ball and even then few gave her any chance of playing at the top level again. Yet return she did and seemingly even stronger than before. Her indomitable spirit was writ large during the semi-finals of the 2006 Doha Asian Games against the North Koreans when, despite sustaining a bloody head wound in a nasty collision, she simply got bandaged up and played on.
Li actually came into football entirely by chance. As a young
girl, she had wanted to play basketball at school but the club was
oversubscribed, forcing her to sign up for football instead.
Because of her height advantage she started out as a forward and
she showed her prowess in the air when heading home against New
If Li is savouring her moment on the world stage, the same must surely apply to Xie, the midfielder who completed the scoring against the Kiwis with a fine individual strike and is another player who has known adversity in her time. She has never before participated at a major tournament for China, injuries having ended her chances despite call-ups from previous national coaches Ma Yuanan and Ma Liangxing. Indeed at the end of 2005, Xie, who is 31, announced she was hanging up her boots for good to take up the job of coach at Guangdong.
Yet Marika Domanski-Lyfors gave her a belated chance at this tournament and now she is showing why many critics consider her China's most technically gifted player. Any local fans previously unfamiliar with the veteran have now seen her qualities at first hand. Prior to scoring againt New Zealand, she had nearly claimed her first FIFA World Cup goal in China's defeat by Brazil, firing a blistering shot against the crossbar with the game goalless on 17 minutes.
With Sunday's quarter-final against Norway approaching fast, it is tempting to draw parallels between Xie and the current top scorer in the competition, Ragnhild Gulbrandsen. The Norwegian striker also announced her retirement because of injury in 2005, only to reverse her decision last year for a chance to compete at the highest level once more. The quarter-finals will offer a fascinating opportunity to see how this pair of reborn talents measure up against each other.
It is just one subplot, of course, to a contest which will seriously test the hosts' credentials. Coach Domanski-Lyfors has long targeted a semi-final place but defender Li knows a difficult examination awaits. Having earlier professed her desire to "win all six matches" in the competition, she sounded slightly more circumspect when discussing the Norwegians. "Norway are a tough side to deal with, but we will definitely give it our best," she said.