The motto that 'nothing is impossible' is one from which inspiration is drawn the world over, and Ma Xiaoxu can certainly vouch for its accuracy at the end of an incredible 2006. Asked to deliver the unlikely, the seemingly unachievable, on countless occasions, the 18-year-old has invariably come up trumps.
Her first truly massive challenge came against hosts Australia in July's AFC Women's Asian Cup final, a match that saw China go into the half-time interval two goals down. The Matildas looked destined for victory in front of a boisterous and buoyant home crowd, but that was before China's teenage striker led the fightback, teeing up Han Duan to pull a goal back 23 minutes into the second half before popping up herself to restore parity and force the game into extra time. Penalties followed and, aided by the heroics of another promising Chinese youngster, goalkeeper Zhang Yanru, the Steel Roses emerged victorious to recapture the continental title for the first time in seven years.
Not content with that achievement, the striking prodigy continued her prolific form as captain at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship in Russia , scoring five times to fire China all the way to the final and claim both the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe awards. Ma then went on to complete an incredible year with another, even more historic awards double when she was deservedly voted AFC Women's Player of the Year and AFC Youth Player of the Year , becoming the first female footballer to have the latter honour bestowed upon her.
My 2006: Ma Xiaoxu
2006 was a splendid year for me and, when I looked back, I am very happy to see what I have achieved. The year's most memorable moment was our winning back the Asian title that we had lost to Korea DPR seven years ago. China had gone from being one of the world's top teams to a position where we found ourselves struggling even on the continental stage, so the victory was a timely boost for us all.
For me, this memorable year really started in earnest for me with the AFC Women's Youth Championship in April, where we successfully secured our qualification for the U-20 World Cup in Russia . We overcame the likes of Japan and Korea DPR en route to winning that tournament and I scored ten goals in five matches to finish as the tournament's top scorer.
Then came the highlight of 2006 when we became continental champions once again after defeating Korea DPR in the semi-final before edging out Australia after a penalty shootout. The final was the first real test for me because when we were two goals down after the first half, everyone expected us to lose, but we showed a lot of character to pull off the comeback.
This match provided me with some precious memories and experience and I learned the importance of playing with determination and a never-say-die spirit. Such experiences proved valuable for us in the semi-final in Russia, when we fought hard to hold an impressive US team to a goalless draw after regular and extra time to win the penalty shootout.
It was not just coincidence that we won two important games after penalty shootouts. My team-mates and I had watched the World Cup games on television as part of our preparation for Asian Cup and we were impressed by Italy's success in that respect. I know some people thought the Italians should thank Lady Luck, but I could see the kind of preparation they had gone through.
A team and a player will always have their ups and downs, and I am no exception. Despite all that we achieved, our 5-0 loss at the hands of Korea DPR in the U-20 World Cup final came as the most heart-breaking moment for me. As everyone could see, that result did not reflect the teams' level of ability. But the defeat also taught us a lesson and we have learned that we must play as cleverly as we play hard against tough rivals like Korea DPR.
I always think I still have a lot to learn and there are also many areas in which I need to improve. That is why, when I was named the AFC Women's Player and Youth Player of the Year, I thought these were individual accolades and new challenges as well, because with such titles you need to work hard to show the best of you and to prove yourself. I would say I am still a young player and the success and awards might have come too soon. It goes without saying that I feel the pressure, but that is also a good thing because such pressure should help me to keep focussed on doing my best both on and off the pitch.
While I favour Ronaldinho's playing style as he plays the game with such ease, I am also impressed by the more industrious type of players, such as the US women's veteran Kristine Lilly. I played against her in the previous China Four-Nation Championship and, despite her age, she played so hard and well that she was there on almost every important occasion. When it comes to me, I think I am a striker of some talent, but I firmly believe that even a gifted player cannot succeed without hard work.
With the FIFA Women's World Cup just around the corner, which will see China play on home soil, my goal for 2007 is that we achieve great things on the world stage and that, personally, I do my job well.