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China looks to reignite former glories

June 8, 2019

The Steel Roses aren't the force they once were. But with football a key priority for the Chinese government, how far can they go towards meeting the country's lofty ambitions?

Vor Frauen-Fußball-WM - China Training
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/XinHua/X. Zijian

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

"In the past we had glories in women's football," national team coach Jia told DW. "We want to revive the greatness of women's football in China. But it also takes years for the players, the coaches and every aspect of football development in China to improve."

"All we want is to try our best," Jia added. "We know the China team has a gap with the top teams. But in every match, we want to narrow the gap."

The effort of trying to do that was on show in the opening match defeat against Germany on Saturday. China pushed their more illustrious opponents all the way and arguably deserved more from the game. They meet South Africa in their second group match on Thursday.

Vor Frauen-Fußball-WM - China Training
Jia Xiuquan takes a training session ahead of China's Women's World Cup match against GermanyImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/X. Zijian

While other countries have made great strides in growing the women's game, China, which hosted the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, has now been left playing catch-up. Once the regional superpower in Asia, the team has slipped behind continental rivals Japan and South Korea, who can both boast more developed national leagues.

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

"I think we want to improve," said Wang, who had spells in Germany playing for Turbine Potsdam and Bayern Munich. "The important thing is to change the physique. Some teams in China are not professional enough. But right now we're moving forward."

Read more: China: Football's (still) sleeping giant

One man who has witnessed recent developments first hand is Mads Davidsen. The Dane moved to China in 2012 and went on to become technical director of Shanghai SIPG, one of the country's biggest clubs. He says the low level of coaching in China is still a problem across the board.

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

Grand plans

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited current English Premier League champions Manchester City in 2015, it was a sign of the esteem in which he holds the beautiful game. Xi has made no secret of the fact that he wants China to be a leading world power in the sport by 2050.

Although football has long lagged behind badminton and table tennis in terms of popularity, the government recognizes the prestige it can bring on the international stage, to feed what Simon Chadwick, a professor at Salford University, calls "Brand China."

To meet Xi's grand plan, Chinese Super League clubs initially embarked on a spending spree, splashing out on big-name foreign signings and investing in clubs abroad. But amid concern over an outflow of Chinese cash, that trend has slowed for the time being.

Now, authorities in China are turning their attention to investing domestically. Tens of thousands of new pitches are being built across the country, and for the first time, football has been put on the national curriculum.

"They're spending the money much less on [foreign players like] Carlos Tevez and agents fees, and much more on grassroots football, so the development of football within communities," said Chadwick, whose work specializes in Chinese football. "Obviously in terms of the long-term impact that will have, it will engage youngsters, 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 need to provide the right content at the right age, delivered by coaches who have the right know-how. They need to sustain this for 10-15 years, and then they will see the effects."

Frauen-Fußball-WM - Wang Shuang
Football is growing in popularity in China Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/C. Bo

One of the biggest challenges for the women's game will be to ensure it also reaps the rewards from the change of strategy. After all, the Steel Roses are ranked far higher in the world than their male counterparts. Yet they receive less funding and struggle to garner the same level of attention.

Chadwick views the women's team as a "get out of jail card" for the Chinese government to achieve its goals, but believes what authorities really want is for the men's team to lift the World Cup trophy.

"Although China has some comparable strengths in women's football, the gold standard is still men's football," Chadwick said. "That is what is going to draw the attention, that is what is going to build China's reputation around the world. And so I think this is principally the reason why women's football has fallen down the pecking order."

Gender games

There are societal issues at play, too. Few in the country see sport as a viable profession, and while Chinese culture is by its political nature egalitarian, gender stereotypes and hierarchical structures still persist.

"Many parents help their children choose [their future career], and they would like girls to learn dancing, practice piano or learn knowledge," Wang said. "It's not so easy for girls to play as it is in Europe. Maybe girls need to play with boys when they start."

To help redress the balance, all Chinese Super League clubs will have to set up a women's team by 2020, in what authorities say will be a show of combined strength. Everyone agrees it will take time for the overall strategy to kick in, but things seem to be heading in the right direction.

"More and more schools now have sports classes for football," said Ai Tingting, a reporter for CCTV, China's state broadcaster, and one of around 60 Chinese journalists in France to cover the Women's World Cup. "The girls as well as the boys have the opportunity to play football for free."

The hope is that success at this tournament could lead to more interest in Chinese women's football and change perceptions in the country.

"If the team can get a very good result, maybe it will encourage more and more girls in China to play football and think whether they want to be a football player," Ai said. "So that's why it is very important for the team to be here and show the world their best."

Special Report: Turbine Potsdam's Wang Fei