China enters Women’s World Cup with high expectations but brutal draw

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

Most casual observers of Chinese soccer know by now that the men have only ever appeared at one World Cup— China’s so-called “golden generation” of 2002, which lost all three games without scoring a goal.

The women, on the other hand, have done better. Much better. 1999 was the peak, as the Steel Roses reached the final, losing in a penalty shootout against the U.S. in Pasadena. (Remember that Brandi Chastain bra celebration?) In fact, in six of the last seven World Cups, China has reached the quarterfinals, with 2011 the sole exception as the team failed to qualify.

A run to the quarterfinals this year, though, could be extremely tough.

Despite having one of the best players in the world in Wang Shuang 王霜 — the reigning Asian Women’s Footballer of the Year — and being the very first team to join hosts France in the tournament’s lineup, the draw for China is brutal.

First, the number 16th ranked Roses must face No. 2 Germany and No. 13 Spain in Group B, alongside No. 49 South Africa. That suggests a third-place finish, which — if China is one of the four best third-placed teams — would likely mean a Round of 16 matchup against Australia, ranked as the sixth best side in the world.

It’s also possible that a third-place finish might instead mean a game against No. 3 England.

And if China manages to best Spain in its final group game and finish second in the group, that would almost certainly mean a game against pre-tournament favorites, USA.

The most realistic chance of progressing further in the tournament is a third-place finish in Group B, and hoping that No. 10 Brazil or No. 15 Italy — not Australia — is its opponent in the knockout round.

But the reality is that even qualification from the group is far from assured. The Steel Roses have been in decline for two decades and enters as only the fourth best Asian team in the tournament.

That’s not how it was supposed to be when China unveiled its ambitious soccer goals three years ago: The plans stated that the men’s team should be one of the best teams in Asia by 2030, by which time the women’s team should be ranked as a world-class team. There’s still a decade left to achieve those targets, but there is little in China’s recent form to suggest the team is going in the right direction.

Jia Xiuquan — a man who’s been dogged by match-fixing and other unsavory allegations throughout his career — was appointed as coach a year ago, replacing Siggi Eyjolfsson just one month after the Icelander had secured qualification for the Women’s World Cup.

Jia’s results at the helm — at least in meaningful competition — have been less than stellar.

The Algarve Cup is an invitational international 12-team tournament held in Portugal each year, which China has won twice (in 1999 and 2002). But this year’s edition was a disaster. Entering as the sixth best team by rankings, China finished dead last, losing on penalties to the Netherlands in the playoff for 11th place.

In comments that were amusingly titled “Final fantasy” by China Daily, Jia was quoted as saying:

“Our goal is to reach the final of the World Cup, and we want to go even further and win the championship. We know there’s still a gap between us and the world’s elite, but we’ve been working hard to close that gap. I know it sounds much more reasonable for us to aim at a quarterfinal finish, but I want my players to dream bigger and then go all out to achieve the highest goal possible.”

Despite the paper describing that target as “over-reaching,” soccer is known for its upsets, and 24-year-old Wang Shuang, playing with Paris Saint-Germain since last August, has something of a reputation for the big stage. She might be the biggest reason to watch.

In New Orleans in 2015, in U.S. striker Abby Wambach’s swan song, the plan was for Wambach to score one more in her 255th and final appearance in front of a record crowd of 32,950. Despite controlling the play, the U.S. team couldn’t find the net and lost by a solitary goal.

The goalscorer that night? A 20-year-old Wang Shuang.

There are a few other reasons to watch: tattooed midfielder Li Ying 李影 and Wang Shanshan 王珊珊, who scored nine goals in a single international game last year, are both exciting. And captain Wu Haiyan cites tennis player Li Na, who won her first major title at Roland Garros in 2011, as her biggest inspiration.

The first game, against Germany, kicks off later tonight at 9 pm China time.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.