State of Chinese soccer remains in downswing

Zakarie Faibis | Wikimedia Commons

Zakarie Faibis | Wikimedia Commons

Almost twenty years ago, on a blazing hot summer afternoon in Pasadena, California, more than 90,000 spectators had their eyes set on one of the most-attended women’s soccer games. 

That was the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, with the host United States playing China at the Rose Bowl.

After 120 minutes of a battle between two superpowers in women’s soccer under the unforgiving heat, the United States emerged victorious in the penalty shootout. In the United States and most of the nations around the world, what people remembered was Brandi Chastain, who had just scored the winning penalty, kneeling on the floor and celebrating with both arms flexing.

In China, what imbued sports fans was agony and loss. In a nation where national pride was closely aligned with, and manifested in, international competitions, the fans of the Steel Roses desperately wanted to see China lift the trophy in the United States.

That sense of tribalism was propelled by the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by the U.S. and NATO forces just two months before the tournament.

But on the sporting side, the U.S. Women’s National Team continued its ascension and has stayed as a perennial major competitor since then. 

The Chinese Women's National Team, however, experienced a steep decline that ultimately ended in its first absence from a World Cup in 2011. Although it has started the recovery, the gap between the United States seems too large to close in a short period.

In some ways, the past informs the road ahead for the USWNT, but it holds China back.

In the United States, the conversation is more about whether the team can defend the title following cathartic revenge of Japan in 2015. 

Chinese sports media, though, seems to reminisce of how close the national team once came to the elusive title.

Even though the United States managed to scrape through the round of 16 with two penalty kicks by Megan Rapinoe, it remains the favorite to win the tournament ahead of the talented host France, with a 28 percent chance to win it all, per FiveThirtyEight. 

China, on the other hand, saw its chances vanish away after losing 2-0 of their round of 16 opponent, Italy, on Tuesday, June 25.

On the power that the teams hold, there could not have been a bigger divergence.

In the latest sign of the importance of the team, the USWNT agreed to mediate a gender discrimination lawsuit filed in March.

Chinese coaches have always warned that if the team does not catch up with the world, it might be too late. 

Twenty years ago, it was a team feared by all; now, it has to actively cede possession and avoid conceding against Spain, whose first World Cup was four years ago, to qualify for the knockout stage.