Teams: Toronto FC, Fiorentina, Barça
It may be in only its fourth year but China’s Four-Nation tournament has rapidly become one of the game’s most prestigious events and is now firmly etched on the women’s football calendar. This year’s competition, which runs from 30 January to 3 February in Shenzhen, sees hosts China entertain last year’s winners and twice FIFA Women’s World Cup champions USA, their North American neighbours Canada and USA 2003 runners-up Sweden.
Despite the absence of world champions Germany, there is plenty of spice leftover from previous battles among the four representatives to ensure a mouthwatering prospect in Asia. The United States begin the defence of their title on 30 January against Sweden, the side they defeated so impressively, 3-1, in their first fixture of USA 2003. On the same day, in the competition’s opener, the Steel Roses look sure to be backed by a huge crowd when they take on Canada, their quarter-final victors in the world’s biggest female football event.
Mia-less USA look to bounce back
The U.S., without the retired legend Mia Hamm and USA 1999 star Brandi Chastain, will be looking to reassert their position as the team to beat after the bitter disappointment of losing out on home soil last September/October. Still led by April Heinrichs and including seasoned veterans Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Shannon Macmillan, the Americans will undoubtedly begin the Four-Nations as favourites once more.
Hanna-less Sweden eager to consolidate
Just one place behind Mia Hamm at the FIFA World Player awards, the loss to injury of the third best female footballer of 2003, Hanna Ljungberg, is a devastating blow to the hopes of European contenders Sweden. However USA 2003’s surprise finalists will be keen to build on those performances and, after falling only to a golden goal against Germany in the Final, look to get some revenge for the 3-1 opening defeat to the USA. If their attractive, attacking style pays off again it should further demonstrate the shift in the game’s hegemony from the USA to Europe.
New-look China experiment for Olympic bid
Just over a month in the job, China coach Zhang Haitao has the perfect platform to try out some new talent with Athens 2004 Asian qualifiers a few short months away (18-26 April). Without the likes of retired-trio Sun Wen, Bai Jie and Zhao Lihong, Haitao will be looking for a painless revolution as he tests out the calibre of the 13 new members he has included in his assembled 29-woman squad. The Steel Roses lacked a cutting edge at USA 2003, scoring just three times in four matches. Teng Wei and Han Duan have come in to replace Sunny and Bai in attack but with the squad’s average age at just over 23, question marks still remain over China’s ability to live with the European and North American powers.
In form Canada looking to keep on rolling
Thanks to their staggering recent form at all levels of the women’s game, Canada have been invited to rub shoulders with the best and get an early test of the footing ahead of China 2007. Norwegian coach Even Pellerud is able to field 15 of the players who served him so well in reaching the semi-finals of USA 2003. However two of his top performers, forwards Christine Latham and Kara Lang, have not made the trip East in order to recover from injuries before the start of next month’s Athens 2004 CONCACAF qualifying. They may be the outsiders of the four but Canada could throw a further spanner in the works of what looks set to be an open, exciting Four Nations event.