Will China, Japan make the World Cup an Asian affair?
Background image: Eric Salard, CC BY-SA 2.0
Female football has come a long way in Asia since China hosted the inaugural edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup [then referred to as the FIFA Women’s World Championship] in 1991. The China women’s football team, in particular, has come a long way since its very first international match, a friendly against the United States’ women team in 1986.
After reaching the quarterfinals in the first edition of the World Cup, the Steel Roses reached the final in 1999. They fought hard but missed out on lifting the trophy, succumbing 5-4 on penalties to the United States after the game ended 0-0 at full time. Although such heights have not been reached a second time, the current team is capable of reigniting them again.
Japan came from behind to take the lead in Asia as far as women’s football is concerned. After losing all three matches and crashing out of the group stage without scoring a single goal in the 1999 World Cup, Nadeshiko Japan participated in every subsequent competition and stunned the Americans and the world in 2011. Their 3-1 victory leaves Japan as the only Asian team to hoist the World Cup on either side of the gender line.
France presents another opportunity and both teams came prepared.
They are joined by South Korea and Thailand but in a group including host France and former champions Norway, the Koreans best hope is to be among the four best third-placed sides in the six groups. While football is not mathematics and no team should be written off too quickly, it would require an even greater miracle for Thailand to upset either the defending and three-time champion Americans or former champions Sweden. Even Chile represent a difficult challenge. Based on that, the weight of the continent lies on China and Japan's shoulders.
Grouped with two-time champions Germany, Spain and Chile in Group B, the former won't have it easy. The Germans are expected to have a smooth ride with China needing to battle Spain for the other place in the knockout rounds. The Spaniards have been rising steadily in recent years and could pose a serious problem.
Meanwhile, Japan drew a relatively easier group. England, Scotland and Argentina are their opponents in Group D. Passage to the next round shouldn't be a problem. The match against the Lionesses will likely be for group honours.
Japan's core is filled with experienced veterans. Defender Rumi Utsugi plies her trade with Reign FC in the United States. She and partner Aya Sameshima each own a century in caps and have combined for double figures in goals. Both are in their 30s but their experience will prove vital to the squad's younger members.
Saki Kumagai plays for French side Lyon. The 28-year-old midfielder captains the team. Veteran midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi is another centurion. She will be a dependable source for goals having netted 29 times already. Forwards like Yuika Sugasawa and Mana Iwabuchi, who was in the team that won the World Cup in 2011 as an 18-year-old, claim 18 and 20 goals respectively.
The Chinese also boast a lethal weapon in forward Ma Xiaoxu. With 61 strikes to her name in 152 appearances for the national side, she will keep defenders busy. Strike partner Yang Li could surpass those numbers in the near future if she continues in her current form. The junior member in the tandem has found the back of the net 23 times already in just 42 outings.
Captain Li Dongna will be instrumental to the team's success, helping to keep things tight at the back. Shutting out the likes of Spain and newcomers South Africa while doing damage on the other end of the pitch ought to help her side progress. From then on, anything is possible.