Women's World Cup: China seeks to revive ancient glories

Women's World Cup: China seeks to revive ancient glories
The Steel Roses are not the force that they had eleven. But with football as a key priority for the Chinese government, how can they achieve the ambitious ambitions of the country?

Jia Xiuquan wants Chinese women's football to be great again. It has been 20 years since the team known as Steel Roses missed the World Cup title, losing the final against the United States after a dramatic penalty shootout. To this day, it is the closest that China has reached the greatest prize in football.

"In the past, we had glorified ourselves in women's football," national coach Jia said in response to a question from DW before Saturday's game with Germany. "We want to revive the greatness of women's football in China, but it takes years for players, coaches and all aspects of China's football development to improve."

"All we want is to do our best," Jia added. "We know that the Chinese team has a gap with the best teams, but in each game, we want to reduce the gap."

While other countries have made great strides in the growth of the women's game, China, which hosted the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, has now been caught up. Once the regional superpower in Asia, the team has lagged behind its continental rivals Japan and South Korea, which can boast of having more developed national leagues.

Former international goalkeeper Wang Fei remembers the 1999 final well. She says that the attention of the success of the country she enjoyed at the time inspired her to become a professional footballer. But she recognizes her interest in the team and in Chinese women's football, since then it has decreased, to the detriment of the domestic game.

"I think we want to improve," Wang told DW from the Chinese city of Dalian, his hometown and the club he represented for the last time. "The important thing is to change the physique, some teams in China are not professional enough, but at the moment we are moving forward."

A man who has witnessed the recent developments first-hand is Mads Davidsen. The Danish moved to China in 2012 and became technical director of Shanghai SIPG, one of the largest clubs in the country. He says that the low level of training in China is still a general problem.

"If you educate the coaches, you automatically educate the players," said Davidsen, who now runs his own soccer consultancy, Optima Football. "And, therefore, players in China still lack the full educational package to play at the highest level, as local coaches do not know how to provide this education."

Big plans

When the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited the current champion of the English Premier League Manchester City in 2015, it was a sign of the game in which he has the beautiful game. Xi has not hidden the fact that he wants China to be a leading world power in this sport by the year 2050.
Although football has lagged for a long time compared to badminton and table tennis in terms of popularity, the government recognizes the prestige it can generate on the international scene to feed what Simon Chadwick, a professor at the University of Salford, call "China Brand".

To fulfill Xi's grand plan, Chinese Superliga clubs initially embarked on a spending spree, splashing with reputable foreign firms and investing in clubs abroad. But amid worries about a Chinese cash outflow, that trend has slowed for the time being.

Now, the authorities in China are turning their attention to investing nationally. Tens of thousands of new releases are being played across the country, and for the first time, football has been put into the national curriculum.

"They are spending much less money on [foreign players like] Carlos Tevez and agent fees, and much more on grassroots soccer, on the development of football within the communities," said Chadwick, whose work specializes in Chinese soccer "Obviously, in terms of the long-term impact it will have, it will attract young people, there will be more players, there will be more fans."

Focusing on youth is key, according to Davidsen. "The foundation is there," he said. "Now they must provide the right content at the right age, by the coaches who have the right knowledge." They need to keep this for 10-15 years, and then they will see the effects. "

One of the biggest challenges for women's play will be to ensure that they also get the benefits of the strategy change. After all, Steel Roses have a much higher rank in the world than their male counterparts. However, they receive fewer funds and fight.