In a sense, Han Peng's emergence at the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ was unexpected. After all, this is a name that few Chinese fans were familiar with before their opener against the hosts. However, after the Steel Roses’ run to the quarter-finals, many global viewers would have been impressed by the eye-catching performances of the China PR No18.
Indeed, the ever-dangerous winger excelled throughout as China who, despite missing out on both the last edition at Germany 2011 and the Women's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, announced their return to the global showpiece with trademark resilience. Despite failing to find the target herself, Han dazzled audiences through her sublime skills on the ball. Han is perhaps best remembered for a marauding run against the Netherlands, which took her all the way down the left flank into the area, before ghosting past her defender and unleashing a powerful drive, only to see it just tipped over by goalkeeper Sari Van Veenendaal.
Han repeated the success in ensuing matches, notably in the second round encounter against Cameroon, where she constantly caught rival defenders off guard through her deft dribbling and sudden acceleration. Han's spectacular displays were such that she was likened to former Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp by the Chinese media for her style of play.
"I know Bergkamp is a great player," the 25-year-old told FIFA.com. "But my favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo. I am not a fast player so I always focus on improving my skills. I like dribbling past rivals and I want to showcase what I am capable of."
*Unassuming nature *Han maintains an unpretentious low-key profile off the field and is obviously a player who likes her performances to do the talking. "I may not be good at speaking but I change into a different person on the pitch," the softly-spoken player explained. "I love football so much so I forget myself and concentrate just on the competition during a match. For me, it was like a dream come true that I played in the Women's World Cup."
Born in Tianjin, one of China's footballing cities, Han started playing football with boys from the neighbourhood. Unlike most students with outstanding marks, she opted to go to a football school rather than prepare herself for university enrollment exams. In fact, her talent didn't go unnoticed as she was selected into the city's U-16 side. From then on, she represented her city at nearly every age level before graduating into the senior side in 2007. She became the rookie player of the year in her very first national league season, before going on to help her side to the national championship in 2012.
"Previously I played as a striker with the youth teams," she recalled. "I won the top-scorer awards with the U-16 side in the national championship. I was later changed into the left winger position in 2009. I like attacking and I can shoot with both feet so the only pity at Canada 2015 was that I didn't score a goal."
*Fresh goals *
But Han did showcase her goal-scoring ability by opening the scoring from an acute angle against Chinese Taipei in last year's Asian Games. More notably, she equalised as China drew 1-1 against USA in a high-profile friendly last December.
"I wept hard as China lost to USA in the final of the 1999 Women's World Cup," she said. "As a little girl I was determined to be a footballer and play for the national team. We are a young team and we reached the quarter-finals upon our return to the Women's World Cup, a result which proved China's women are on the up. But the loss to USA in the last-eight meeting showed that we still have a long way to go."
"Our next targets are qualification for the Olympic Games in Brazil next year," said the brave player, who played with her head swathed in bandages in the closing stages against Cameroon after getting injured while competing for a header. "It is a tough task because some of our continental rivals are quite strong. We should work harder as we aim to continue our progress."