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Unitt: It means the world

Rachel Unitt has been a key member of the England women's team for the past six years. Courtesy Rachel-Unitt.co.uk

(FIFA.com) 03 Oct 2006

Of all of Rachel Unitt's 57 performances for England, it is unlikely that any have proved as rewarding as her 45-minute display in Rennes on Saturday. An ankle problem may have prevented the left-back from reappearing after the interval, but the pain of that injury was eased somewhat by the result, which ensured that England had qualified for China 2007.
The 24-year-old, who plays her club football with Everton, was a member of the side which lost both home and away to France four years ago, which ultimately cost England a place at the FIFA Women's World Cup finals of 2003.

Unitt, who was voted as England Women's Player of the Year in 2005, spoke to FIFA.com about the progression that Hope Powell's squad have made over the last four years, the growing appetite for women's football in England and her excitement at the prospect of playing on the biggest stage of them all.

FIFA.com: Rachel, congratulations. What does qualifying for the FIFA Women's World Cup mean to you?
Rachel Unitt: It's every footballer's dream to play in a World Cup. To represent your country at the highest possible level is any player's ultimate ambition. I've been fortunate to play in two European Championships, but I've never played at a World Cup. It will be my first one and I can't wait for it to come around.

I imagine that the celebrations after the game were pretty special. Have you come back down to earth yet?
Just about! After we left the pitch, I don't think we stopped singing for about an hour. We were singing in the changing room after the game, on the coach and even when we got back to the hotel. I think everyone is still on a high and it will take us a couple of days for us to fully calm down. It means so much to us. But we know we have to begin our preparations for China immediately. Qualifying was a massive step for us to take, but now we have to make the most of this fantastic opportunity.

It's great for women's football in England, isn't it?
Definitely. I know that the FA's Media Officer has been inundated with interview requests since we qualified - and that's fantastic. We gained a lot of recognition after we hosted EURO 2005 and since then the interest levels have continued to rise. I think 70,000 people in total came to watch our qualifying matches in England and, altogether, eight million watched on TV. I know we've helped to change a lot of people's opinions in England, where the men's game is a way of life. But there is a space for women's football - and that space is growing.

Injury meant that you had to watch the second half from the bench. How agonising was that for you?
It is far more nerve-wracking watching the game from the sidelines! When you're playing, you're completely focused - but when you're watching, all manner of things go through your head. I was sitting there, holding my crutches, completely on edge for the entire second half. I was always confident that we could get the result we needed and when we scored, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. But the nerves came back when they got the equalising goal - one more goal and our dreams would have been over. It was awful! However, even before the game, I was confident that we would get a result.

France really made it difficult for you…
They really put us under pressure. They had a number of shots on target and they have some excellent players. Marinette Pichon, who has a phenomenal goal-to-game ratio, is one who springs to mind immediately. We did well to get a draw against them in both games.

Pichon has just announced her retirement from the French team. She has been a fantastic player for France, hasn't she?
She's not only been fantastic for France, she's been fantastic for women's football. When I was watching her from the bench, I could really appreciate just how clever she is. Her awareness is excellent, she makes great runs off the ball and when she receives it, she is extremely good technically. She is an excellent player and they will miss her.

You were involved in the games against France four years ago, how were you feeling in Saint-Etienne after the 1-0 defeat?
I was completely devastated. Every single one of us was heartbroken. We came so close, but in many ways we still had a long way to go. At the time we were missing about three key players - Kelly Smith, Kate Chapman, Faye White - and even though we had injuries to contend with on Saturday, we still came through. The squad has more quality, we are physically stronger and I think the appointment of a squad psychologist has made us mentally tougher. I'm a strong believer that the mental side of things is just as important as the physical side of things.

Because of the disappointment at the hands of France four years ago, did that make Saturday's result sweeter this time around?
Yes, I think so. Don't get me wrong, qualification was the most important thing and no matter which side we faced, we would have still celebrated in the same way we did at the weekend. But for me, with the memories of Saint-Etienne in my mind, it was extra special. It's been amazing to see how the team have moved forward in those four years. On the flip side, I know how France must be feeling now - and I wouldn't wish those feelings of disappointment on anyone.

How important has your coach, Hope Powell, been to the success of the team?
She's played a vital role. She's a great coach, a fantastic manager of the team and of the squad as individuals. She has given us the confidence we've needed over the past two or three years to progress.

Of course, the two draws against France were vitally important, but what do you think was the team's best performance during the qualifying campaign?
Even though we beat Hungary 13-0 away from home, for me, it was the 4-0 win over the Netherlands in August. It was probably the best team performance I've been involved in with the national team and possibly one of the best performances by an England women's team. They are not an easy team to beat, they have some good players, but we some played great football on that evening.

In what ways do you think the team can improve?
I think we are very solid at the back, so I think we'll have to work a bit harder at going forward. We need to be a bit more creative and expressive in the final third of the field. We're not a very tall team, so aerially we can improve - and I think we can work a little harder on our fitness. We're in great shape at the moment, but we can always raise our levels, which we will have to do for such an intense tournament.

Are you looking forward to the friendly against Germany in October?
I can't wait. I just hope I'm fit. It will be a good test to see how far we have come. In my opinion, there is no better team than Germany. They are the world and European champions - and we have never drawn against or beaten them. But in the past 18 months, we've defeated Norway and drawn twice against Sweden, so that has given us great confidence to get a result in Aalen.

What kind of an impact can England have in China?
Every team who have qualified from Europe have a chance to win it. Our first target is to make it out of the group stages. Obviously, Germany and the USA are the favourites, but I am extremely confident that we can do well.

23 Posts
Discussion Starter #2
FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007
Changes and challenges for Ma

Ma Liangxing believes that China PR have a lot of work to do in the next 12 months if they are to perform well in nexy year's FIFA Women's World Cup.

(FIFA.com) 14 Aug 2006

China women's coach Ma Liangxing recently guided his team to the AFC Women's Asian Cup and saw teenage striker Ma Xiaoxu crowned as the player of the tournament. In spite of this double success, the 48-year-old is happy to keep a low profile.
Ma is considered to be the country's leading women's coach. As well as enjoying a stint with the national side several years ago, he has also managed to guide Shanghai's women's team to 19 national titles. Because of his personal success and the pedigree of China's squad, he is under no illusions that expectancy in the host country for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup will be high.

Just prior to the team's training camp in the United States that starts on August 16, Ma sat down with FIFA.com to talk about the team's performances, prospects and the recent retirement of Sun Wen.

FIFA.com: What do you see as the significance of winning the recent AFC Women's Asian Cup?
Ma Liangxing: Well, we wouldn't say that we are back to our best just yet. We are still in the middle of the rebuilding process and preparing for next year's World Cup. But I am happy to see that the team went through all kinds of difficulties to win the tournament and the victories are a timely boost to the squad's morale and confidence.

After losing to Korea DPR in the 2003 final, was it nice to defeat them this time around?
In 2003, I believe that our team was stronger than Korea DPR. We deserved to win the tournament, as we had the best team in the competition, but we lost to a golden goal. This time around, the tables were turned. We defeated the favourites. They were the stronger team, but we managed to win. That's football.

During your two-year absence from women's football between 2003 and 2005, you surprised many by guiding Zhuhai Zhongbang to the Super League. Was it easy to make the transition between men's and women's football?
Football is the same, no matter who is playing the game. Therefore, there are a lot of similarities in terms of coaching. However, given the physical and psychological differences, you need to cope with similar problems in a different manner.

What made you return to the China women's team after you left following the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2003?
The China Football Association needed me back and so did the team. It was my responsibility to return.

What do you see as being the major problems with the team?
We are still in a transitional period. With most of the 'golden generation' now retired, we have yet to find the players to fill the voids. The problem is that we don't have a huge pool of players to choose from. If we look at the world leading women's teams like Germany and USA, we can see they have so many options in every position. Even in Australia, it's reported that they have 30,000 registered women football players. But in our country, there are only about 1,000.

And now the problem looks more serious as Sun Wen has announced her retirement?
Without a doubt Sun Wen has been the most influential player for our team. Her talents and experience are vital. Without her we will have a hard time.

So you are still expecting her to return to the team?
In June, she sustained an injury to her right leg, which required an operation. She's worried that she will never recover fully - and consequently will never get back to her best. But I would love her to return to the team. If you consider the role played by Zinedine Zidane in helping France reach the Final of Germany 2006 then I would say that Sun Wen could do something similar. She is the sort of player who can make the difference. However, if she does insist that she will not come out of retirement, I will respect her decision. We are great friends.

Who do you think could fill her shoes?
You can never find a replacement for a player like Pele, Maradona or Sun Wen. They are exceptional players.

What about Ma Xiaoxu?
She did well at the Asian Cup and she's a talented striker, but she's a long way behind Sun Wen at the moment.

How do you rate your chances at the FIFA Women's World Cup?
Because we're playing in China, the team will be hoping to perform well and play with confidence in front of our supporters. If we play to our capabilities in the knockout stage, I think we will achieve out goal. But at the moment we are simply not strong enough. If we are hoping to compete against the world's best side, we need to improve a lot over the next 12 months.
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