At the first World Cup, which China hosted, they were unlucky to be beaten by Sweden in the quarter-final. On their next appearance they lost to the USA in the play-off for third place, and they suffered a similar fate at the Olympics, though this time it was in the final. At the third attempt, the six-times Asian champions could find themselves playing reigning champions Norway in the semi-final and then the USA in the final once more. At least the draw makes this a possibility, and their friendly outgoing coach Ma Yuanan would love to see things follow this course. Certainly his team has the potential to take gold. Their win over the USA in the final of the Algarve Cup has confirmed that 'Ma's Big Red Machine' is a hot tip to offer the home side some stiff competition, and that will be good for the tournament. They never seem to have a bad game. They are always concentrated, tactically disciplined and yet flexible. In addition they are strong competitors, technically skilled, creative in midfield and adept at playing a counter-attacking game. It is no disgrace to lose against this team who are all so comfortable with the ball, but it takes something special to beat them. Even so, head coach Ma would like to see a bit more pace in the side. "What we plan to do, does not always happen," he comments.
His big problem is that there is no other team in the whole of Asia that can seriously challenge them. Their preparation has been intensive. After the tournament in Portugal they played two matches in Germany. At the end of April they went to the USA for two games there against the host country, and three against college teams. After a six-day break there will possibly be a match against Japan. Most of May will be spent at a training camp in Peking, during which several matches will be played against junior men's teams, before they take off for America again a week or two before the tournament.
In China, the Women's World Cup is seen as an event of major importance. How many Chinese girls and women play football can only be estimated. It is not a people's sport that is organised on a club basis, nor is it a school sport. "Football is mainly still for the young," reports CFA secretary 'Tracy' Lu Ting. The three main interests of the Chinese - politics, business and football - run in that order for girls too, and the status of the sport depends a lot on what support it receives from the political and business world. "In Shanghai the provincial governor likes football - men's and women's. The result: Shanghai's men have a good team, while the women have a decent budget and are champions." For this reason Ma Yuanan has many Shanghai players in his squad as well as a block from Beijing. Suin Wen, Pu Wei, Wen Lirong, Liu Ailing are among them.
What Ma Juanan has in his team is an excellent mixture of experienced players and talented youngsters, who are capable of fulfilling the country's expectations. The past has shown that in China only top performance brings success. "The Olympics in Atlanta helped a lot, for example," says Lu Ting. "We need more games like those and that kind of atmosphere, if we want to develop further. The World Cup in the USA should be just right for us."
*...wants to show them all. The World Cup is seen as the first real test on the way to what the country hopes will be an Olympic medal in Sydney in 2000. And the 'Matildas' are doing all they can to make it happen. Since last July an enlarged squad has been living together in various sports schools. In the autumn the team toured North Korea and in January they hosted a three-nations tournament to which Italy and Canada were invited. Then they went on to Portugal in March to the Algarve Cup (eight teams). "The level among the professionals has risen tremendously in the last few years," says Julie Murray, who has been in the game for 13 years. "The good thing about the Australian mentality is that we never give up." But in addition to this determination, progress has been made on the tactical and technical side, as it has to be these days for a country with ambitions. Their qualification in New Zealand, with that astronomical 21:0 win over Guam, was undisputed. After the Algarve Cup the players had a few days off. Then they trained from the beginning of April to the end of May, a period that included some matches against men's teams. Directly after that, off to the States, where further matches, among others against the USA and Canada, were on the programme.
*...are the number two in Africa behind Nigeria, and this will be their first appearance in a World Cup final round. In March they played China twice, losing by the narrow margin of 1:2 on each occasion, a creditable achievement. "Ghana have a strong defence, but there are weaknesses up front," was a recent comment from the Chinese camp. The team known as the "Black Queens" have been playing since 1991, and rivalry between them and their geographical neighbours Nigeria has always been intense. But the two nations are also good friends. The head coach is Emmanuel Afrani, who has a reputation as a shrewd tactician, and the team he has put together is regarded as good in every position, but a bit weak in terms of available substitutes. If stars like Vivian Mensah or Alberta Sackey should be missing for any reason, then the team could be in trouble. An interesting point is that Sackey, now 24, was in the team that played in the first World Cup qualifiers in 1991. "For us a dream has already come true," said Afrani after their success in the qualifying round. "Getting this far has brought a new level of recognition for our sport," added Vivian Mensah. "We want to build on that and qualify for the Olympics."
*...re-started as usual after their winter break by taking part in the Algarve Cup. But without much success this time, except for a 1:1 against the USA, which represents the best result against the Americans for 10 years. But then they went down against Australia. Will this provide motivation for the group encounter in the World Cup? Quite likely, since Sweden still rank among the elite of Europe, and of the world in fact. Young players have been brought into the side in recent years, but where the Tre Kronors have not been successful for quite a while is against the very top teams - matches against Norway, Germany or China have all ended in defeat. But a place in the semi-finals is within their reach. Because their league season only began at the end of April, the progress of their World Cup preparation is not easy to evaluate. There have been a few camps and some friendly international matches, including a notable 1:1 against European vice-champions Italy, which indicates thatthey are a team to keep an eye on.