The spotlight has fallen on China women's team since they produced a hugely disappointing campaign at the recent Algarve Cup, finishing ninth following four straight defeats. The most shocking of all these losses was a humiliating 4-1 reverse at the hands of Iceland, and the solitary goal scored by the Steel Roses in that match was one of just two they managed throughout the whole tournament.
It represented an alarming wake-up call for a team who won this annual championship as recently as 2002, and yet despite the disappointment, China's legendary former striker Sun Wen believes it is better that the team's weaknesses have been exposed while there is still time to address them before the FIFA Women's World Cup. "A team's progress is not only about results but also performances," the FIFA ambassador told FIFA.com. "We still have almost six months to prepare the team, so I never lose faith."
Sun's optimism was echoed well by Han Duan, one of China's promising young international strikers. She said: "We lost largely because the team entered the competition not in the best form after a two-month training session. As you could see, we were tired not only physically but also mentally."
Throughout her illustrious playing career, Sun succeeded on more than one occasion in steering China to the latter stages of the women's game's greatest competition to battle against the world's best. Predictably, therefore, the sight of the current crop of Steel Roses wilting against little-known European rivals was a source of some sadness.
"I am not too sure about what was exactly happening, but I can see there are problems with the team because they were even well beaten by the likes of Finland and Iceland." The retired striker, who is currently working with the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup, also echoed Han's claim that these problems were largely psychological: "It is obvious that they were not defeated physically or technically, but mentally."
In Sun's opinion, the key to rebuilding China's lost credibility lies in regaining the sense of pride and responsibility that underpinned the side narrowly edged on penalties in the final of USA 1999. "A player must play with pride when she plays with the national team and it should be her mission to do her utmost to represent the national team well," she said. "The team (in 1999) also played a lot of difficult games, some of which we lost, but we never collapsed. That pride and responsibility cannot be defeated."
While lamenting their performances against Finland and Iceland in the Algarve, Sun did point out that the Chinese had performed creditably in their tournament opener against eventual champions USA, only just losing out by the odd goal in three. "It was an evenly contested match," she said, "and despite the qualities of US, the team played bravely and created good chances."
Those views were again shared by Han, China's goalscorer in that match, who headed a spectacular equaliser 112 seconds after Kristine Lilly had put the Americans in front from the penalty spot. "It's usually hard to play against a team like US, particularly when you go one or two goals down," she told FIFA.com. "But this time around we looked a different team. They may have won the game but we did cause a lot of headaches for them."
Though ultimately to no avail, the performance, according to Han, was actually one of the best the team has produced in recent years. "Now we must put the results behind because it is the experiences we gleaned from these matches that really count ahead the World Cup," she added.
Another potential gain to come from China's disappointing Algarve Cup campaign could be the appointment of a European coach - the first in the team's history. According to China's Soccer newspaper, the Chinese Football Association has targeted several candidates, with Sweden's Marika Domanski-Lyfors - who has recently admitted to being in discussions over the job - the overwhelming favourite.
"We can't wait to have a coach," said Han, pointing to the fact that the team have spent the last two months without someone at the helm. "The earlier the managerial staff is decided, the better for the team's preparation." The Chinese played both the recent Four-Nation tournament and the Algarve Cup under assistant coach Wang Haiming due to Ma Liangxing's ongoing illness problems.