They may not have had a side in the semi-finals of the FIFA Women's World Cup but the efforts of the four Asian Football Confederation (AFC) teams in China suggest the future is bright for the continent's women's football. China PR, Korea DPR and Australia all progressed to the quarter-finals having taken second place in their respective groups, while Japan were in contention until their final game before losing to holders Germany.
While positive for Asia, there are fears in the host country that the rapid emergence of North Korea and Japan, coupled with Australia's entry into the AFC, could undermine China's traditional hegemony in women's football in the region. The Steel Roses have enjoyed a decade of dominance over their rivals but that superiority could soon be threatened - with China potentially facing a battle to qualify for the next FIFA Women's World Cup as well as the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in 2012.
Certainly that is the view of Chinese women's football legend Sun Wen. The joint FIFA Women's World Player of the Century is optimistic about the outlook for Asia's teams but reserves a word of caution for her home nation. "These four teams are pretty much on an even footing at the moment," she told FIFA.com. "Although China won the AFC Women's Championship last year, they're going to have their work cut out to remain the top team in Asia from now on."
That is not to say China underperformed this month. Although they were unable to achieve their target of reaching the last four, coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors and her players nevertheless won the widespread admiration and backing of the home fans. The problem is, they were not alone in leaving the right impression.
Matildas leave their mark
China 2007 marked Australia's first FIFA Women's World Cup appearance under the AFC's banner and the Matildas - who had never before won a game on the world stage - gained many admirers with their gutsy performances. Lisa De Vanna's stunning late strike against Norway cemented her reputation as supersub par excellence while their fightbacks against both Norway and Canada, and the manner in which they gave Brazil a run for their money in the quarter-finals lent weight to Norway coach Bjarne Berntsen's assertion that the Matildas were the tournament's most underestimated team.
Certainly they showed they relish a challenge, no matter how strong the opposition, and Brazil coach Jorge Barcellos was quick to praise for their tenacious efficiency after his side's 3-2 quarter-final success, saying: "Australia only had four shots on goal, so their success rate is 50 per cent. They also counterattacked very quickly and were tough to break down."
Like Australia, North Korea reached the last eight for the first
time with Kim Kwang Min's side advancing from arguably the
toughest group in the competition. However, the subsequent
challenge of beating Germany proved too much - although they
contained the reigning champions for long periods, they could not
match their opponents for experience and went down 3-0, a scoreline
that somewhat flattered their opponents.
Renowned throughout Asia for their short passing game, the North Koreans also displayed a formidable work rate and impressive shooting power. They have youth on their side too, the sterling performances of youngsters like Kim Kyong-Hwa, Kil Son-Hui and Kim Yong-Ae auguring well for the future. In the eyes of former China national coach Shang Ruihua, the current Korean crop bear a striking similarity to the China team who reached the quarter-finals of the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup back in 1991.
'Koreans need experience'
"In terms of their training regime and personnel they are already in a fairly strong position, although what they're most lacking in is match experience," he said. "In fact, there was a lot of expectation on the China PR team back in 1991, but it took them a long while to fulfil their potential. Once the Koreans have built up sufficient match experience, we could see another China in the making."
As for Japan, they may have been the first AFC representatives to exit the tournament but their never-say-die performances certainly kept fans on the edge of their seats. Prior to losing to Germany, last-gasp goals helped them snatch a draw with England and take three points against Argentina and centre-forward Eriko Arakawa put those late heroics down to their resilience. "I think that these last-minute goals can be put down to our mental strength," she said.
FIFA Women's World Cup quarter-finalists in 1995, the Japanese have been a mainstay of Asian women's football for years. They achieved a notable victory over China at last year's AFC Women's Championship in Australia and their dogged displays here in China should give them the self-confidence they need to progress further.
Japan are not the only ones setting their sights high and there might even be a fourth rival for China to consider in Korea Republic. They failed to qualify for this year's world finals but could increase the competition for places at the 2011 edition, as well as at the Olympics in 2012. Either way, it seems fair to say standards are rising across the continent and, while challenging for China, this can only be a good thing for the women's game.