It’s been 20 years now since China were on the losing side in one of the most iconic games to date in women’s football. The 1999 World Cup final saw over 90,000 people cram into Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium for a match that CNN recently declared “changed women’s football.”
After the agony of losing the game on penalties, China’s women have failed to get as close again to World Cup glory. Nevertheless, when France 2019 kicks off this weekend there will be a large following tuning in from China, especially as the side’s first group game falls in the middle of a holiday weekend.
The Steel Roses (as China’s women’s team are known) are in a group that contains two-time winners Germany — who may not be at their most intimidating but will still pose a stern test — along with South Africa and Spain. The tournament hosts, a resurgent England side, the Netherlands, Japan, and of course old foes the US are all being talked about as potential World Cup winners this year. And all would make for extremely tough fixtures should China meet them in the knock-out phases.
But of course, the beauty of a tournament like the World Cup is that it can be wildly unpredictable — and China may spring a few surprises along the way. In order to do that, here are the key players they’ll need to shine at France 2019:
Wang Shuang is undoubtedly the star of this China side. The forward, who looks set to leave Paris Saint-Germain Féminines after just one season in France, is the creative heart of Team China. Her outstanding performances over the course of 2018 saw her scoop the regional AFC Player of the Year award last year.
She’s also the China representative in Nike’s stirring new ad campaign for the tournament:
In the China installment of The Guardian‘s excellent series of World Cup 2019 previews, Titan Sports’ Bi Yuan picks goalkeeper Peng Shimeng as China’s “player who is going to surprise everyone” at this summer’s tournament, so who are we to argue?
One element of surprise surrounding Peng relates to her relative inexperience at international level, though the 21-year-old started every game as China made their way through the World Cup qualifiers and became the first team to book their place in France.
— China Women's National Football Team (@ChinaWNFT) May 27, 2019
Peng, who was between the posts in China’s final warm-up game ahead of the World Cup — a 2-1 loss to an under-strength France — was named goalkeeper of the season in China last year after keeping 15 clean sheets for her club side, Jiangsu Suning.
China may well struggle defensively in France, but on their day their forwards have the ability to devastate opponents. If Shandong Ladies forward Li Ying is firing she can be hard to stop, but Wang Shanshan is another player who China will look to to be in the goals.
Luoyang-born Wang made headlines around the world when she found the net 9 times in a single game at last year’s Asian Cup. This feat was even more remarkable given that she had started that game (against a hapless Tajikistan side) on the bench, only taking to the pitch in the 55th minute.
Another reason to watch Wang: she might just pop up in the box for a cheeky back-heeled volley like this one she scored against South Korea in 2017:
This may not be the tournament for China to finally surpass the achievements of 1999, but they’ll certainly be a team to watch at France 2019.
Cover photo © Paparazzofamily | Dreamstime.com
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