Tuesday 10 April 2018, 13:11

Steel Roses ready to blossom on global stage

  • China PR were first team to qualify for France 2019

  • Li Ying's three goals in two matches proved pivotal

  • Head coach Siggi Eyjolfsson’s side now aim to win their ninth Asian title

Li Ying completed a brace as China PR followed up their opening 4-0 win against Thailand in the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup by defeating Philippines 3-0 on Monday. The results, coupled with Thailand's 6-1 victory over hosts Jordan in the day's late game, saw the Chinese become the world's first team to book passage to the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™ through qualifying, joining hosts France at the global extravaganza.

"I am very pleased with China being the first country to qualify for the 2019 Women´s World Cup," coach Siggi Eyjolfsson explained to FIFA.com. "We want China to compete in big tournaments like the World Cup and Olympic Games to measure ourselves against the world's best.

"It will take some time to build a world-class team but we started that work last November and we have since making consistent progress," he added, whose side have secured a place in the tournament's last four with a group game to spare.

China's top scorer Li Ying is currently topping the tournament's goalscoring chart with three goals, having opened her account against Thailand before striking twice against the Philippines. For her, the successful qualification came as a timely boost as the team have their sights fixed at nothing fewer than winning their ninth Asian title.

"We are happy for sealing a place in next year's Women's World Cup," the 25-year-old attacker told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "This is something expected. Because our goals are not only to book qualification to France 2019, but also to win the Asian Cup."

Proud past As Ying said, their smooth qualification came as no surprise considering their proud past. One of the pioneers of the women's game, China progressed beyond the group phase in each of their past six Women's World Cup appearances, notably reaching the final at USA 1999 only to lose out to the then hosts on penalties. And they twice played as hosts, in 1991 and 2007, making it to the quarter-finals on both occasions.

All the more impressive is their record as eight-time Asian champions. The Steel Roses took their debut Asian Cup at Hong Kong 1986 by storm, emerging as champions and from there, they never looked back, going on to defend the title six times on the trot. Can they rediscover those glory years?

"We aim to win every game, as every team do," said Eyjolfsson. "Of course, if we manage to do that we will win the Asian Cup and that would be a dream come true. But we should remain wary of Australia, Japan and Korea Republic as they are all great teams and are ranked higher than us. In a word, we believe that we have chances of beating them as long as we show our best. We will see if we can manage to surprise them."

After their golden generation, though, China's continental dominance faced severe challenges by the likes of Korea DPR, Japan and Korea Republic. The challenge got even greater when Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2005, and despite briefly bouncing back to recapture the Asian title in 2006, a transitional China team suffered their first qualifying upset by missing out on a place at Germany 2011.

China's Asian Cup record: Winners: 1986, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2006 Runners-up: 2003, 2008 Third places: 2001, 2014 Fourth place: 2010

China's World Cup record: Runners-up: 1999 Fourth place: 1995 Quarter-finalists: 1991, 2003, 2007, 2015

Fresh ambitions That qualifying failure sounded a warning note for the aspirant Chinese as they have since embarked on further developing women's football in the country. As a result, a host of fresh talent have come through the ranks, with a young China team finishing in third at the 2014 Women's Asian Cup to seal their return to the Women's World Cup.

They did impress upon their return at Canada 2015, edging Netherlands and drawing New Zealand to progress to the Round of 16, before advancing to the last eight after narrowly beating Cameroon. Ying featured in two games at Canada 2015 but failed to find the back of net. With the team having completed their qualifying mission, however, she is hoping to break her FIFA Women’s World Cup duck at France 2019.

“I may have scored three goals in this Asian Cup but it was largely because our opponents were not so strong. I hope I can maintain my goalscoring form at the Women’s World cup next year and help our team achieve good results. It would be great if I score goals and the Steel Roses blossom on the global stage."

Though, having just received their tickets for the finals, Eyjolfsson is not looking to start mapping out his own expectations for France just yet. "We have not set goals yet for the World Cup in France, but of course, I think that we can progress beyond the group stage," he explained. "It will be a hard task considering that the World Cup features the strong teams. The only way to achieve that is to work hard every day and move forward towards our goal."