When you think of the most famous image in Women’s World Cup history, you don’t often remember the opponent. Brandi Chastain’s celebration after slotting home the winning penalty in the 1999 tournament has inspired the spillage of plenty of digital ink, but maybe the least remembered aspect of that moment is that the United States had to defeat China for the trophy. Part of this is because an image is more indelible than a box score. The other part, though, is that China haven’t done much in women’s soccer since.
Though they finished fourth in 1995 and second in 1999, China have yet to advance past the quarterfinals of any subsequent World Cups, and even failed to qualify in 2011. In 2015, China returned to the tournament and again met the United States in the quarters, but were undone by a 51st minute goal by Carli Lloyd. The loss sent the Steel Roses back home, extending a streak of 16 years without a trip to the semis.
Ahead of the 2019 edition in France, China’s stated goal is a spot in the semis, though they enter the tournament with more questions than last time around, and in a tougher road ahead. If China are to accomplish their lofty goals, it will be because their one true superstar went bonkers.
That superstar is Wang Shuang, a midfielder/striker do-it-all who moved to Paris Saint-Germain last season and promptly balled the fuck out, scoring seven goals and notching eight assists in just 18 appearances. Wang Shuang, then 20 years old, barely made an impact in the World Cup of 2015 due to a lingering injury she couldn’t overcome, but she’s back for another go-around as the undisputed star of the team.
China will need Wang Shuang’s magic to power them through through the group stage. While Germany will be heavily favored in the first match, the Chinese should nip by South Africa, setting up a potential do-or-die matchup with Spain on the final day of the group.
Wang Shuang won’t have to do all the scoring herself, thankfully. Her strike partner is Wang Shanshan, who has scored four goals in five matches in 2019. Given Wang Shuang’s propensity for doling out assists, expect Wang Shanshan to land on the other end of her passes in front of goal. Which is good, because China will need to be high-scoring to make some noise.
The problems for China start once you get past the top level. Former vice-captain Zhang Rui has 99 official appearances for China, but was dropped from the squad for the World Cup, leaving a hole in the center of the midfield. There’s not much experience coming in for Rui, though Tan Ruyin, who can create and defend in turn, is one to keep an eye on; she is coming back from injury but was deemed fit enough to be included in the squad.
The defense isn’t bad, but it won’t be what wins China games. The Steel Roses will have to figure out how to slow down Germany’s high-powered attack and Spain’s dominant midfield if they will have any chance of advancing. In international knockout tournaments, it’s often better to have a strong defense than a strong attack, but China will try to push against that common wisdom by letting their two strikers loose and hoping for the best. At the very worst, China should be fun as hell to watch for three games, and Wang Shuang should win some new fans with her abilities across the front.
Goalkeepers: Xu Huan (Beijing Phoenix), Peng Shimeng (Jiangsu Suning), Bi Xiaolin (Dalian Quanjian)
Defenders: Liu Shanshan (Beijing Phoenix), Lin Yuping (Wuhan Jianghan University), Wu Haiyan (Wuhan Jianghan University), Han Peng (Guangdong Huijun), Li Jiayue (Shanghai), Wang Ying (Wuhan Jianghan University), Luo Guiping (Guangdong Huijun)
Midfielders: Lou Jiahui (Henan Huishang), Wang Shuang (Paris Saint-Germain), Wang Yan (Beijing Phoenix), Li Wen (Dalian Quanjian), Gu Yasha (Beijing Phoenix), Tan Ruyin (Guangdong Huijun), Zhang Rui (Changchun Zhuoyue), Yao Wei (Wuhan Jianghan University), Liu Yanqiu (Wuhan Jianghan University)
Forwards: Yang Li (Jiangsu Suning), Li Ying (Guangdong Huijun), Wang Shanshan (Dalian Quanjian), Song Duan (Dalian Quanjian)
The Steel Roses
The Chinese will probably start out with a classic 4-4-2 with advanced wingers (some combination of Gu Yasha, Lou Jiahui, and Yao Wei) flanking Wang Shuang and Wang Shanshan. While this will play into their attacking and creative tendencies, it will leave the middle of the park wide open, particularly for teams that play with three central midfielders, like, uh, both Germany and Spain. This will require whoever coach Jia Xiuquan slots in at the pivots to work hard in defense while still getting the ball up to the dangerous attackers.
The defense, though not elite like the attack, should help. Captain Wu Haiyan is the standout at center back, with Liu Shanshan and Wang Ying as fullbacks. If China can dominate and push back opponents with their rapid-fire attacks, then the defense will have time to settle into their lines and block off any dangerous counters before they reach the goalie. Speaking of, China do have a strong keeper in 21-year-old Peng Shimeng, who first made waves at the 2018 Asian Games, where China finished second to Japan. She was the best goalie in the Chinese league last season and enters the World Cup in some of the best form of any net-minders in the tournament.
But, again, none of that will matter as much as what the strike duo up top manages to do against top international competition. If Wang Shanshan or, especially, Wang Shuang disappoint, China will follow suit. But if they can interchange and finish with the precision they’ve shown in recent months, China could be as good as anyone at finding the back of the net. That should be enough to see them out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds, where a key goal here or there could see the Steel Roses make a deep run into the quarters and, as hoped for back home, beyond.
June 8, 9 a.m.: Germany vs. China at Roazhon Park
June 13, 3 p.m.: South Africa vs. China at Parc des Princes
June 17, 12 p.m.: China vs. Spain at Stade Océane
All times Eastern