Chinese women football team cheer up before the 3rd place match of 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup in Amman, Jordan, on April 20, 2018 (Xinhua/Lin Xiaowei)
By Michael Reid
CANBERRA, Dec. 7 (Xinhua) -- China's women's football team has enjoyed an eventful yet successful 2018 and can look forward to next year's FIFA Women's World Cup in France with a degree of optimism.
In May, Jia Xiuquan replaced Icelander Sigurdur Ragnar Eyjolfsson as head coach and oversaw a hectic schedule that ran to 26 matches by year's end to finish with a record of 18 wins and one draw.
But that strong winning record cannot fully measure the strength of Jia's team. The team regularly beat weaker opposition during the year but was often found wanting against the elite teams.
It opened the year with a 4-0 win over Vietnam at the Foshan Four Nations Tournament and beat Jordan 8-1 at the Asian Cup, and Tajikistan by a whopping 16-0 at the Asian Games. But at both those latter tournaments they were beaten by Japan at the business end of the competition.
China also lost to Portugal, Norway and Australia at the Algarve Cup, and suffered twin friendly defeats at the hands of the United States.
In Jia Xiuquan, the team has one of the most traveled coaches in Chinese football. His many appointments include a stint in charge of the national men's under-19 team, and he was nominated for coach of the year honors in the Chinese Super League in 2015 and 2016.
His squad is predominantly comprised of domestic-based players, apart from midfielder Wang Shuang, who moved this year to Paris St Germain and was named Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women's Player of the Year last month.
Apart from Wang's creative role in attack, Li Ying, a potent and charismatic striker, has also had a good year with her goal-scoring efficiency.
While Jamaica's Khadija Shaw led the way in the World Cup qualifying matches with 19 goals from just 12 appearances, not far behind her on goal average was China's Li, who scored seven goals from her five matches.
In fact, Li caught the eye at the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup in Jordan not just with her powerful shots and goal-scoring prowess but her striking, highlighted hair. She will definitely be one to watch in France.
Born in Chongqing, Li was spotted by a football coach from her middle school. But with no girls teams to join, she had to train and play with a boys team. The early experiences made her stand out when she was signed by Hangzhou Club to start her professional career.
"Football is a game of competition and perhaps because of playing and training with boys for some years, I am not afraid of tough opposition. I never give up and I push myself to the limit to score and win," she said in a recent interview.
Whilst the China men's team have struggled to find success on the international stage, China's women have now reached the World Cup finals seven times (reaching the final in 1999 and the quarter finals four times) as well as having been crowned Asian Cup champions eight times.
The Steel Roses are one of five teams from the Asian confederation to qualify for the 24-team finals, joining Australia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
With a world ranking of 15, however, China is not protected, like Australia, from being drawn against the big guns, including the three-time world champion the United States and two-time champion Germany.
But China will draw some inspiration from its solid record at the World Cup. It was beaten on penalties by the United States in the 1999 final and has reached the quarterfinals on four other occasions; in the inaugural competition in 1991, which it hosted, in 2003, 2007 and at the most recent tournament in 2015.
In a separate development, three referees from China will represent the country as match officials in the upcoming FIFA Women's World Cup in France in 2019, the Chinese Football Association recently announced.
It will be the second World Cup for the Chinese trio, Qin Liang, Cui Yongmei and Fang Yan, after the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada.