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Steel Roses find strength in adversity

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2020-04-07 09:14
Coach Jia Xiuquan (left) and his Team China squad must beat South Korea in a playoff to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. [Photo/Xinhua]

Women's team insist recent virus-related setbacks have only made it stronger

Missing core players and facing quarantine in far-flung locations with just days to spare before big matches, the odds have certainly been stacked against the 'Steel Roses' in their bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

But Chinese women's team head coach Jia Xiuquan, who last week reassembled his players for a training camp in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, believes the adversity has only made his squad stronger and more united.

The Steel Roses had originally been scheduled to begin the third round of their Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in Wuhan, Hubei province, in February. However, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Chinese Football Association to withdraw its hosting rights, and the qualifiers were moved to Sydney, Australia.

The change of location not only cost the Chinese squad home advantage, but also set in motion a domino effect of disruption.

Upon arriving in Australia, the Chinese squad was quarantined at its Brisbane hotel until Feb 5, just two days before their rescheduled opener against Thailand.

The players endeavored to keep in shape as best as possible with some basic training in their hotel rooms, before eventually managing to advance to the playoff round. It was a feat made all the more impressive considering Team China was without its brightest star, Wang Shuang-the Wuhan native who has stayed in her hometown since the lockdown of the city in late January.

"Since we returned from Australia, I felt that our players have grown to become more mature," said head coach Jia. "They are now more focused on the pitch.

"The special experience of quarantine and competing in Australia, along with all the setbacks and difficulties we encountered during this time, have made it clear to us that we can overcome all challenges thrown at us as long as we are united and determined."

Team China's playoff opponent is South Korea, with the winner of the two-leg tie winning a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed until 2021.

The playoff round had originally been scheduled for March, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the Asian Football Confederation to reschedule the matches-initially until April and then once again until June. In these uncertain times, a further postponement would come as no surprise.

The pandemic has also resulted in China's 'home' leg being moved to Sydney.

Now back in Suzhou, Jia hopes his squad can reflect on their journey so far and recalibrate for the challenges ahead.

"I hope through this opportunity (in Suzhou), we can thoroughly summarize our experience in Australia," said Jia.

"It's not only about the improvement on the technical level. What's more important is their mentality. No matter what kind of difficulties we face, we should never complain and hesitate to solve problems."

Team China player Tang Jiali admitted the Aussie trip was a real test of the players' character.

"We were told to go into quarantine half a day after we arrived. Everything happened very suddenly at that time," the 25-year-old midfielder told Chinese publication Soccer News.

"I was honestly very confused at that time and even our coach could not plan for the next development. We just waited for further notice every day.

"There was no hot water at the hotel for three straight days, so no showers for us. We had to boil hot water ourselves. And the elevator in the hotel was also broken. I just told myself just to focus on soccer."

Now, her focus is sharpening even more as Tang closes on her Olympic dream.

"The only thing that matters is to make the best preparation that we can," Tang said of the playoff game. "I'm confident about our match against South Korea. Now the China's women's volleyball and basketball teams have all made it to the Olympics. It's our turn now.

"If there had been no pandemic, I would be in contact with a foreign club now. But everything's changed. The priority is to prepare for the next qualifier. I really hope to one day have the precious experience of playing at an Olympic Games in my professional career."

Tang's teammate Zhang Xin is also confident the squad's hardships Down Under will ultimately prove fortifying.

"Those days were truly tough, and I never expected to have such an experience," said the 27-year-old midfielder.

"But those times are also very precious to us, because not everyone can go through this. No one could help us under those circumstances, and we could only depend on ourselves. So we had no choice but to push as hard as we could."

China's chances against the Koreans could be boosted by the possible return of Wang Shuang, with Wuhan's lockdown officially set to end on Wednesday.

After months of staying indoors and trying to keep fit in her apartment, the 25-year-old Wang revealed to her followers on social media that she has now started running alongside Wuhan's East Lake, giving coach Jia hope that he might soon have the former Paris Saint-Germain playmaker back to bolster his options.

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