Roses locked onto Tokyo target

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Team China captain Wu Haiyan. [Photo/Xinhua]

After enduring a tumultuous start to the year, China's women's squad is more determined than ever to book a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.

Now recovered from a roller-coaster ride of a qualifying tournament in Australia, where the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on its preparations, the Steel Roses' Tokyo chances now rest on a playoff against South Korea.

After a stressful time of late, head coach Jia Xiuquan's 'Steel Roses' could be forgiven for sounding a little weary. True to their nickname, however, they are again displaying a steely resolve - and they certainly won't be using the delay of the Tokyo Games as an excuse.

"It's hard to say if the postponement is advantageous to us or not. As players, all we want is to qualify for the Olympics as soon as possible. But for sure we will face difficulties," captain Wu Haiyan told media from the squad's training base in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, on Sunday.

"The aim of the training camp is to help us restore body strength and physical condition. The team does warm-up training as well as practicing attack and defense tactics.

"Off the pitch, we always wear masks. Each of us has a separate room at the hotel, and we have a one-person-per-table policy when we have meals to keep distance from each other indoors as much as possible."

Coach Jia's squad came through a tough third-round qualification tournament in Australia in February after all Group B matches had to be relocated from Wuhan, the then epicenter of China's COVID-19 outbreak.

The switch saw Team China lose both home advantage and a number of core players, including former Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Wang Shuang.

Wuhan native Wang remained at home for months in the Hubei provincial capital, which was locked down from late January until early April. The squad also faced numerous virus-related logistical difficulties Down Under.

However, Jia's squad refused to wilt in the face of these mounting obstacles to book a playoff berth against South Korea.

The two-legged playoff was originally scheduled for March, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the Asian Football Confederation to twice rearrange the matches-initially until April and then once again until June. A third rescheduling is now in the pipeline after world governing body FIFA announced early this month that all international matches in June will be postponed.

"That was a tough period," Wu recalled about the squad's time in Australia. "We couldn't even train as usual on the pitch or in a gym. We could only train in our hotel rooms as we faced medical quarantine.

"But the key for us is to keep united as a team. The difficulties have only brought us closer together. As a team, we faced and solved the challenges together."

After two months of self-quarantine, star player Wang along with two of her national teammates, Yao Wei and Lyu Yueyun, finally rejoined Team China in Suzhou after the lockdown of Wuhan was lifted on April 8.

A week later, the national squad announced all three players had tested negative for COVID-19 and they resumed full training with the rest of the squad.

"During the epidemic, the national team has been concerned about the safety of the players who stayed in Wuhan," said Jia.

"To be responsible for the team's safety and the health of all players, the national team has been strictly following the local epidemic prevention policies in Suzhou during the training camp.

"During the quarantine, the three players' psychological condition was stable and they kept doing basic training in their hotel rooms… During this special time, the players are more united than ever and have displayed true tenacity."

Wang revealed the prospect of finally rejoining her teammates left her too excited to sleep, and added that the support of Team China had helped her get through lockeddown life in Wuhan.

"At the very early stage of the epidemic, the head coach wanted us to return to the team as soon as possible," said the 25-year-old. "To help the three of us who stayed in Wuhan, our coach tried his best to coordinate with various organizations. He cared about us, and I never felt abandoned.

"Mentally speaking, I kept stable. The coach always communicated with me. He told me to not give up, saying that I will make it to the Olympic qualifier. At first, I was anxious, but after getting through all this time of quarantine, I'm much calmer now."

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