When Hungarian referee Gyoengyi Gaal blew the final whistle on the hosts' FIFA Women's World Cup campaign, the home fans looked on disconsolately as China PR's players collapsed sobbing into each others arms, their dreams in tatters. Head coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors strode resolutely across the pitch to console each one of her players, first hugging defender Wang Kun before approaching striker Ma Xiaoxu and tenderly stroking her face.
These were the emotional scenes on Sunday evening at the Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, where the Steel Roses were eliminated from the FIFA Women's World Cup, beaten narrowly by Norway. Few in the host nation would have suspected that China's bid would be brought to a halt by a team they had soundly beaten 4-0 and 5-0 respectively in the 1991 and 1999 editions of the tournament.
This was certainly not in the script written by Domanski-Lyfors when she took up the reins as coach of the women's national side and declared boldly that her goal was to "take China to the last four" of the competition. However, visions of a semi-final appearance sadly evaporated as the supporters in Wuhan saw their heroines pay the ultimate price for underestimating their Nordic rivals.
After the match, the Swedish coach, who had previously led her home country to a runners-up spot at USA 2003, fought back tears as she analysed her side's elimination. "The players should be proud of themselves, I hope that they are, because this experience can make them winners in the future," she said. "The players played really well, did exactly what we were talking about before the match - except score goals. Tactically, we neutralised Norway's players."
It was in the same city on 27 March that Domanski-Lyfors had accepted the offer of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) to become the first ever foreign coach of the women's national team, just 167 days before the start of the FIFA Women's World Cup. The 47-year-old took over team affairs officially on 21 April on the day of China's 3-2 victory over the FIFA World Stars in a pre-draw exhibition match. Thus she had little more than four months to prepare a team to challenge the world's elite.
Domanski-Lyfors inherited a team low on morale following their hugely disappointing showing at the Algarve Cup in March. Not only had China finished just two rungs above the bottom in tenth place, but they also exited the tournament on the back of four straight losses, including embarrassing defeats by Finland and Iceland in their final two matches. Consequently Domanski-Lyfors's first task was to raise the confidence levels of the squad. "As a team we need to have the courage and belief to take opponents on and win matches," she told FIFA.com at the time of her appointment.
Just one week later, China took their first steps on the road to recovery by beating Canada twice in the space of four days. Having masterminded successive victories over the team who defeated them in the USA 2003 quarter-finals, Domanski-Lyfors subsequently led her charges to two friendly wins over Korea Republic and a draw with Australia.
With the finals approaching, the resurgent China team ended
their preparations on a high note with another morale-boosting
victory, this time against England. Domanski-Lyfors'
transformation of China's fortunes became fully apparent in
their opening match of the tournament against Denmark. Leading 2-0,
they let the Danes recover to 2-2 but whereas on previous occasions
the players' heads might have dropped, this time it was
different, substitute Song Xiaoli restoring the hosts' lead
just two minutes from the end.
Qualification from Group D was secured when, after losing 4-0 to Brazil, the Steel Roses bounced back with a 2-0 win over New Zealand. They then produced a strong display against Norway, despite losing 1-0, and deserved the praise Domanski-Lyfors gave them after the match. She said: "It's important to take the good things out of this, and that's that China can play very good football - technical and tactical - against the very best teams in the world. That's what we have proved here."
Domanski-Lyfors' positive outlook has earned her plaudits from many experts in China, including retired national captain Gao Hong and Zhang Jianqiang, the CFA's director of women's football. Both expressed their belief that the hosts had played their best football of the tournament against Norway. Zhang Jianqiang, former deputy chairman of the AFC Committee for Women's Football and a member of the Committee for Women's Football and the FIFA Women's World Cup, told FIFA.com: "The result aside, I think that China were outstanding. Not only did they demonstrate their tactical and technical qualities, they played with spirit and panache."
For all the positive words, Domanski Lyfors is only too aware that the responsibility for China's quarter-final elimination rests ultimately with her. Speaking on Sunday, she said: "My goal was to take them to the semi-final and I have failed, that is why I have a decision to make and I will discuss this matter soon with the CFA. We will take a decision on that and I hope to continue watching the World Cup before taking a vacation."
With their coach's fate hanging in the balance, it would seem that the players are anxious for her to stay on. Midfielder Bi Yan, who wore the captain's armband against Denmark, underlined the team's wishes when she said: "We want her to stay, we really do. Marika has been in charge of us for four months now and we shouldn't interrupt the work she has done. We think that she is the right person to lead our preparations for next year's Olympic Games."
In the view of Zhang Jianqiang, frequent managerial changes over the last few years have had an unsettling effect on the squad's long-term development, a trend which he believes should not be allowed to continue. "Since 2001, the China women's team has had five different coaches, each of whom have brought their own teaching ideas and mentality into the mix. This chopping and changing has resulted in a lack of continuity and stability for the women's team."
Of course, as Domanski-Lyfors herself has noted, whether or not she stays on at the helm is a matter for her and the CFA to decide. Yet, whatever is decided, there is no doubting that the experience and ideas which the Swede has brought to the squad have left an indelible mark on the players, while the moving sight of her tearfully embracing her charges will also live long in the memory of millions of Chinese football fans.