With their runners-up finish at both the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Atlanta 1996 and the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 1999™, China PR boasts a glorious past in the women's game. And despite the failure to qualify for last year’s Olympic Games for the first time, the Chinese passion is re-ignited with their junior side to represent the country and Asia in next August's Girls' Youth Olympic Football Tournament Nanjing 2014.
China are the first team to qualify for the girls' competition as hosts, with next autumn's campaign marking their first appearance in the tournament. Boosted by their proud record in women's football, needless to say, the home side have fixed their sights on securing gold at the global showpiece's second edition.
"This youth competition's significance needs no introduction," Zheng Chaoyong, a CFA (Chinese Football Association) official and a managerial member of the team, told FIFA.com. "It provides youngsters from across the world with a stage where they can learn from each other, understand the Olympic spirit, and improve work-ethics by playing football. It is also a good chance for the participating countries to take stock of their talents at the age group level as well as promote the game among young girls."
"All this aside, though, it is a competition and we want to get a good result as hosts. There is no big gap in class between teams at this age level so all contenders will aim to win the gold, and we are no exception."
As the first qualified team, hosts China are arguably the first to prepare their side for the girls' campaign. And the country's well-organised youth football camps over the recent years provide the FA with a pool of talent from which they can make selections.
"We organise a pair of camps each year which feature the best teams and players from across the country," Zheng continued. "The camps are staged during winter and summer vacations so the players – all of who are students from schools - can be available. Each camp has approximately 22 teams so we can watch and choose the best for our team."
Although they are all amateur players, these girls are campaign-hardened, having featured in a series of AFC tournaments. They had the fiery baptism in this April's qualification for next year's inaugural AFC U14 Girls' Championship, opening brightly with three straight wins against Chinese Taipei, Northern Mariana and Guam only to lose out 3-0 to group winners Korea Republic as they failed to seal a slot in the Asian finals.
Coached by Lu Yiliang, the Chinese girls bounced back two months later, emerging winners of the East Asian Zone in the inaugural edition of the AFC U-14 Girls’ Regional Championship 2013. In the process, they ran riot in the group phase with three comfortable wins including a 5-0 defeat against Korea Republic. They went on to edge Japan in a 4-2 thriller, before defeating Korea DPR on penalties to lift the regional trophy.
"The most important thing is not the result, but the fact that our players have seen their confidence boosted," said Zheng. "The international experiences they have gained are precious. In between we had a European tour in England in May, during which we played a series of friendlies against local English Premiership sides. Notably, we managed a 3-3 draw against Arsenal."
A host of talents emerged from these warms-up, all of whom are expected to make it into their squad at Nanjing 2014. Forward Chen Xia finished as the tournament top-scorer with six goals as China prevailed in the recent regional competition, while her attacking partner Jin Kun dazzled fans with her pace and skills. The most notable should, however, be captain Zhao Yujie who displays a level of aplomb and leadership rarely seen at this age.
"It is a year to go (until the tournament kick-off), so anything can happen to the squad make-up," Zheng summed up. "It is perhaps too early to predict who can make it into the final line-up. The girls are quick in learning and they can still make good progress in the build-up."