China's once-glorious women's football team is fully aware that a strong showing at the Beijing Olympic Games could help revive the "beautiful game" domestically.
History shows that when host nations achieve unexpected success at major tournaments, their sport gets an instant shot in the arm.
Chinese players celebrate a goal by Wang Dandan (R) during their AFC Women's Asian Cup 2008 semi-final soccer match against Japan in Ho Chi Minh City June 5, 2008. [Agencies]
"I hope China will make it into the semis in the Beijing Olympic Games," said head coach Shang Ruihua.
"A good result at the Olympics will be inspiring and helpful to women's soccer's development in China."
When China's national men's soccer team qualified for the 2002 World Cup final, the game's popularity soared.
"We are still lagging behind some of the world's best teams. But competing on home soil, it's the best chance for us. We must play our best soccer and I believe we will not let the fans down," Shang added.
Shang's confidence derives in part from China's encouraging performances in the Asian Cup early last month.
Despite losing the final 2-1 to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the team showed great promise.
Shang believed China played stronger and more confidently than it had for a long time, strengthening its chances of reaching its Olympic semifinal goal.
"We showed remarkable progress during this tournament. It's encouraging to our Olympic preparations," Shang said. "We gained a lot from the wins and losses."
China, a former World Cup and Olympic finalist, has struggled in recent years and entered the Asian Cup as one of the least favored squads.
But the team played unexpectedly well on its road to the final, stumbling to a 1-0 win over minnow Vietnam in the opening match before bouncing back to crush Thailand 5-1.
The team lost to the DPRK 1-0 in the third group match but advanced to the semifinals where it faced title favorite Japan, a team China had not beaten for four years.
But an impressive all-round performance helped China turn a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 upset over Japan, setting up the final match against the DPRK.
"Once again, we played good team soccer," the coach said. "All of our players kept fighting for every ball whether we were ahead or behind.
"We also figured out how to better control the ball, to make low and short passes as much as possible."
The 63-year-old coach, who took the reins after Frenchwoman Elisabeth Loisel was sacked in March, also said he learned much about the team from its Asian Cup performance.
China women's and men's Olympic teams are shouldering the high expectations of home supporters as they face the mission to advance into at least the semifinals during the Beijing Games. AP
"The Asian Cup is a major international event and also the best tune-up for us before the Games. From these matches, I know more about my players, especially those who have not competed in a big tournament before."
Shang has other reasons to be happy after China was drawn in to the favorable group E for the Beijing Games.
This draw will see it avoid major title contenders and face only the less fancied sides of Sweden, Canada and Argentina during the qualification rounds.
None of these sides advanced to the second round of last year's World Cup and China is thought to be capable of beating at least two of them on home soil.
The team will open its Olympic campaign on Aug 6 against Sweden in Tianjin.
Most of the attention will be focused on Group F, which boasts Asian powerhouse the DPRK, World Cup winner Germany, World Cup runner-up Brazil and the rapidly improving Nigeria.
Germany will look to add another Olympic title to its belt while Brazil, just one step away from Olympic gold when it lost to the US in Athens, hopes not to let history repeat itself.
Reigning Olympic champion the US is drawn in Group G with Japan, Norway and New Zealand.
Since the golden years of the 1990s, China's women's team has ridden a downward spiral, dropping to its lowest ever ranking of 14th in the latest FIFA rankings.
Meanwhile, Asian neighbors the DPRK and Japan have leapfrogged the former Asian No 1 and are now ranked No 6 and 10 respectively.
(China Daily July 5, 2008)