England’s final group game will be against China on Tuesday but, even after two matchdays of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, many are still asking: Who are the Steel Roses?
Even for avid fans of the women’s game, there are no teams in the top 20 of FIFA’s World Ranking who are as elusive as China, with a revolving carousel of players and regularly changing manager. Indeed, no man or woman has led the Chinese national women’s team for more than three years since Ma Yuanan departed the role in 2001 after a decade in charge.
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Throw in how hard it can be to follow the Chinese Women’s Super League, even since the boom in the last decade that saw a number of notable players from South America and Africa follow in the footsteps of their male counterparts. Even now Barbra Banda and the Chawinga sisters still play their club football in China, even though most of the players who at one point called China their home have left, including the recent raft of Chinese players who’ve gone overseas to improve their game.
It all means that fans only really get to see what China are made of at Asian Cups and major tournaments but, having changed coaches after a forgettable Olympic campaign, bringing in Shui Qingxia to replace Jia Xiuquan, the squad has once again undergone a retool. But there is always the question of consistency and a lack of predictability. For this World Cup, Shui has leant more on older and experienced players, only keeping nine from the squad that went to Japan for the Olympics, jettisoning most of the younger players Jia chanced his arm with.
After China’s narrow 1-0 win over Haiti, Shui spoke in her post match news conference about trying to evolve women’s football in China and the responsibly of everyone involved to make football more of a game that’s played on the ground. It was a nice sentiment from a manager coaching in her first World Cup, having represented China for over 10 years, even winning silver at the 1996 Olympics, but ran counter to how the Steel Roses had actually played against Haiti.
In China’s 1-0 opening loss to Denmark, the team had been cloggy and forgettable, playing a timid game that did little to harness the attacking talent in the squad. However, against Haiti, the Steel Roses hit the ground running and were overrunning the midfield, causing all sorts of problems at the back for the Caribbean team and, even after going down to 10 players, China still showed resilience to stay in the game. The better moments for China came, not when they got the ball on the ground and played it around but when they could bypass the Haitian backline by springing their attackers in behind, with Wu Chengshu looking particularly dangerous with her pace going forward.
Always a physically strong team that has been able to boast a level of athleticism, there is a growing pressure on the Steel Roses to deliver and usher in a new era of women’s football in China, where the participation numbers remain surprisingly low despite the nation’s consistent presence at World Cups (save for a failed qualification bid in 2011.) The powers that be are eyeing success in the next decade and will want to use this World Cup as a springboard — not least after lifting last year’s Asian Cup, China’s first trophy since 2006, delivered by Shui, who like her players has a weight of expectation on her shoulders.
The situation for China going into their final group game is a complicated one that can see them progress even with a loss, but there will be no room for resting on their laurels against the Lionesses. Far better when Wang Shuang, the attacker who was subbed in at half-time in both previous games, is on the pitch, the question for Shui will be how bold she chooses to be: unleashing her star attacker from the start would be an indication that she’ll be looking for all three points. There is, however, a strong level of respect held by Shui and her charges for European teams and she may yet err on the side of caution as she did against Denmark.
Having flattered to deceive so far this summer, the proposition is quite a different one for England who will be aching to get a statement win and gain some of their own momentum. England will be looking to punish the Steel Roses where possible, suggesting a more open and physical 90 minutes ahead for both in Adelaide.