Han Duan: Expansion will enrich the Women’s World Cup

  • Han Duan spoke to FIFA about China PR's women’s triumphant AFC Women’s Asian Cup campaign

  • Former Steel Roses captain hailed the team's never-say-die spirit under new boss Shui

  • She has high hopes for the team at Australia/New Zealand 2023, and for the tournament itself

By any standards, China PR’s performances at January's AFC Women's Asian Cup were remarkable.

In a tournament that doubled as the continent’s qualifiers for the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia/New Zealand 2023™, Shui Qingxia's Steel Roses not only achieved their mission of sealing a spot at the global finals, but stunned even their own supporters by storming to the title. All the more impressive was the fashion in which they defied the odds en route to glory. With Australia and holders Japan the heavy pre-tournament favourites, China made a low-key entry only to improve and grow in confidence with every passing match.

Having secured progression to Australia/New Zealand 2023 by reaching the last four, Shui’s side capped an unforgettable campaign with two sensational comeback victories, first against Japan in the semi-finals and then to beat Korea Republic in the final and lift the trophy for the first time since 2006.

The entire country was sent into raptures, and among the joyful TV viewers following the drama in India was Han Duan, a former Steel Roses captain. The ex-forward, who played a key role in China's last conquest of Asia 16 years previously - striking the tournament-winning penalty in a shootout win over Australia – was full of praise for the country’s class of 2022. "It was a hard-fought campaign and I could vividly feel how tough it was for these players," she told FIFA. "They overcame challenges posed by both the pandemic and their strong rivals to win. It was a timely morale-booster for the team and an exciting campaign. Their success also helps increase the attention on the women's game and, in the long run, it will inspire more young girls to play football."

China PR team celebrate after winning the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup.

Steel Roses’ spirit revived

Han’s excitement is well founded. The team’s success came, after all, in the wake of a disappointing campaign at last year’s Women's Olympic Football Tournament, when heavy losses to Brazil and Netherlands consigned the team to an early exit. It ultimately cost coach Jia Xiuquan his job, with Shui - a former Steel Roses forward, who won Olympic silver at Atlanta 1996 - taking over last November. China looked like a different side under their new coach at the Asian finals, with their never-say-die spirit exemplified in a semi-final in which they twice came from behind to draw 2-2 against Japan before prevailing 4-3 in the ensuing shootout. They then went one better in the final itself, overcoming a two-goal deficit against Korea Republic to win 3-2. "The match was tough," said Han. "We had a transitional side with several young players, whereas Korea Republic had a strong team with several European-based stars. But we took the game to them and didn't give up even, when we were two goals down. It was the Steel Roses spirit which carried the team through. "Coach Shui has a lot of experience and she knows the players well," Han added. "Under her guidance, the team struck a good balance with young legs complementing the older heads. The tactics she employed proved successful, too, most notably in the way she converted Wang Shanshan from a star striker to a centre-back to shore up the defence."

China PR forward Tang Jiali #18 in action.

While the entire team excelled throughout the campaign, Han singled out Tottenham Hotspur striker Tang Jiali as one of standout performers. Tang scored three times, including the goal in the final that halved Korea Republic’s lead and ultimately turned the tide in China’s favour. As Han said: "Our players are usually technically good, but not physically strong. Tang, though, is a different type. She has both skill and strength, plus a good nose for goal. “If you look at the past Women’s World Cups, the competitiveness continues to increase. The trend in the women’s game is to play simple football, not to showcase your skills, but to find the most straightforward path to victory. To compete against the world’s best teams, Chinese players need to work harder to improve in these aspects.”

New opportunities Down Under

Australia/New Zealand 2023 will mark a new era for the Women's World Cup, as the tournament’s expansion to 32 teams takes effect. Having featured in two editions of the global finals, at USA 2003 and China PR 2007, Han sees the increased number of participants as a positive development. "Firstly, it opens a new window for the debutants," she said, citing the likes of Vietnam and Philippines, both of whom qualified for the first time. "It provides chances for more countries to experience the Women’s World Cup, and their appearances will add to diversity of the tournament and enrich the tournament with different styles of play. "It will also be a fresh opportunity for the traditional powerhouses because they will be exposed to unfamiliar sides, new tactics and different styles. I think it will promote the women's game and boost its development to a new level across the world. "Every player longs to play in the Women's World Cup. It is the chance of a lifetime. From my experience, the most important thing to do when you get there is to do your best and enjoy it. "When I played in my first Women's World Cup, I felt pressure. Four years later, however, I could fully enjoy it when we played as hosts. For each match, I went on to the field with excitement. Looking back, China 2007 was really a campaign to remember: the chanting supporters, amazing atmospheres, enthralling games and our quarter-final finish." Han hopes, too, that Australia/New Zealand 2023 can be a tournament to remember – and savour – for China. “It goes without saying that every player will strive to help the team achieve success,” she concluded. “My advice for them, however, is to put results aside and concentrate on their performances and enjoying the Women’s World Cup matches.”

Han Duan of China celebrates scoring a goal against South Korea in their round robin match in the East Asian Women's Football Championships at the Yongchuan Stadium in Chongqing on February 18, 2008. China lead South Korea 1-0. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)