China edged out East Asian rivals Korea DPR and new girls Australia to recapture continental glory at the AFC Asian Cup 2006. It was their first title since 2001 and may well speak to a renaissance for the once-powerful Steel Roses.

The recent successes were a timely boost to the team that, despite a history dominance, is in a period of profound transition. It is also a good omen for the side as they head into the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup where they are expected to achieve big things as hosts.

While the Steel Roses look to be on track toward re-establishing their faded credibility, they will have to not only work hard on the technical side of their game, but also on building a new team in the shadow of their 'Golden Generation'. Legendary veteran Sun Wen may have returned after a two-year exile when Ma Liangxing was re-appointed the head coach in 2005, but shortly afterwards she was forced to call time to her playing career having sustained a serious knee injury.

Fortunately, the emergence of the young talents like teenage striking sensation Ma Xiaoxu and cool-headed goalkeeper Zhang Yanru brings a fresh breeze of optimism. The pair both played key roles in the senior side's winning campaign at the AFC Asian Cup in August and they went on to perform well to steer the U-20 side to the final of 2006 FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship.

Qualifying
China struggled early in the AFC Asian Cup despite a lack of pressure as they had already qualified for the 2007 world finals as hosts. Pitted against Japan, Vietnam and Chinese Taipei in Group A, they opened their account with a measly 2-0 win over Chinese Taipei. They went on to down Vietnam 2-0, but in the final group match their hopes were heavily dented as they were stunned by a loss to archrivals Japan.

Progressing to the knockout rounds as the group's second-place finisher saw China meet favourites and reigning champions Korea DPR in a make-or-break semi-final. After a hard-fought 90 minutes it was Ma Liangxing's unfancied charges that scraped through, with Ma Xiaoxu grabbing the only goal.

The final against impressive hosts Australia proved a classic for China, with the sides only separated by a penalty shootout after 120 minutes. The Aussies started strongly and headed into the second half two goals up. China had to thank Ma Xiaoxu for the recovery as the 18-year-old showed a glimpse of her talents after the interval, teeing up Han Duan to pull one back before she scored the equaliser herself. No goals were forthcoming in extra time and the game went to penalties. Substitute 'keeper Zhang Yanru repaid coach Ma's faith by successfully saving two Australian kicks to see her side through.

Coach
Swede Marika Domanski-Lyfors became the first-ever foreign coach of China women's team when she took charge of the Steel Roses in March 2007. Her appointment came in the wake of the team's disappointing Algarve campaign where they crashed out following four straight defeats. The FIFA Women's World Cup hosts were left without a head coach for nearly three months after former head coach Ma Liangxing developed a heart problem in January and their below-par performances at Argarve Cup sounded a further note of warning that eventually saw the Chinese Football Association (CFA) turn to an experienced and highly-respected European coach.

It was Domanski-Lyfors' brilliant coaching record with her home country that made her the outstanding candidate. During her six-year tenure in charge of Sweden, the Scandinavian nation qualified for two FIFA Women's World Cup finals and made it as far as the Final at USA 2003.

FIFA Women's World Cup record

  • They failed to reach the last-four of the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup in China in 1991 after losing to Sweden in the quarter-final.

  • China finished in fourth place at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Sweden in 1995

  • Four years later, they finished runners-up at the FIFA World Cup USA 1999

  • China were eliminated by Canada in the quarter-finals of the FIFA Women's
    World Cup in the USA in 2003
What they said
"My goal is to take the team to the last four. I know that we have a lot hard work to do in preparation for the tournament, but I believe we can do our utmost to achieve our aim."
Marika Domanski-Lyfors after being unveiled as China coach at a press conference in March 2007 in Wuhan.