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Around the World in Women's Soccer: The Steel Roses of China

Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: The first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.

In 1999, the U.S. Women's National Team won a World Cup title in style. In front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., the United States played 120 minutes of scoreless soccer before going to penalty kicks. Brandi Chastain scored the game-winning penalty, ripping off her jersey in celebration.

But what about their opponents? The 1999 Women's World Cup is the high water mark for the Chinese women's national team. The Steel Roses have competed in seven out of the eight Women's World Cups, missing only the 2011 tournament in Germany. They have hosted the competition twice, including the inaugural tournament in 1991. But that penalty shootout in 1999 is the closest they've ever gotten to hoisting the Women's World Cup trophy.

China has had a women's national soccer team since at least 1984. Their first manager was Cong Zheyu, a striker who played for the Chinese men's national team in the 1950s. Other than Ma Yuanan, who managed the team from 1991 to 2001, managers for the Steel Roses don't tend to last more than a few years. Their current manager, Jia Xiuquan, has been with the team since 2018.

In addition to their seven Women's World Cup appearances, China has also been in five out of six Olympic soccer tournaments. In 1996, they faced off against the United States in the gold medal match, but once again, they were bested by the Americans. They were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2016 tournament, losing 1-0 to Germany, who would ultimately go on to win the gold medal.

Wang Shuang is one of the most-capped and most-recognizable players on China's current roster. A former striker for Paris Saint-Germain, she has more than 100 caps for the Steel Roses and is often dubbed "Lady Messi" in China. Wu Haiyan, a veteran player on China's backline, serves as the team captain.

China didn't perform as well as they had hoped at the 2019 Women's World Cup. Despite starting in three out of four matches for China, Wang wasn't able to find the back of the net at all. China's lone goal-- in their 1-0 victory over South Africa-- came from striker Li Ying. But China's defense performed fairly well, especially in the group stage. They allowed only three goals in four matches, with two of those goals coming in their Round of 16 game against Italy. Peng Shimeng, who took over for veteran goalkeeper Zhao Lina in the 2018 Asian Cup, had an impressive tournament.

China will face off against South Korea in a two-leg, winner-take-all playoff to determine whether they will go to the Tokyo Olympics. The entire Olympic qualifying process for the Asian Football Confederation-- and for China, in particular-- has been heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Three players-- Wang, Yao Wei and Lyu Yueyun-- were stuck in Wuhan on lockdown for 76 days, missing time with the team. In February, China expected to host the third round of qualifiers, but the games were relocated multiple times until, ultimately, the team ended up having to travel to Brisbane, Australia, and quarantine in a hotel.

The Steel Roses are consistently one of the best national teams in Asia. But their glory days of being the best feel like a distant memory. China is hoping that players like Wang Shuang can introduce a renaissance to a team that once went toe-to-toe with the U.S. national team on the biggest stage in the world.

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