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China Has A Hard Path Back To World Cup Glory

LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 06: Wang Shuang of China (C) and teammates thanks supporters for standing during the International Womens Friendly match between Switzerland and China at Swissporarena on April 6, 2023 in Lucerne, Switzerland. (Photo by Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)
Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

China used to be one of the juggernauts of international soccer, reliably making it to at least the World Cup quarterfinals, dominating Asia, and distinguishing themselves as a steady presence in the top 10 of FIFA's rankings. But over the past decade, the Chinese program has endured a real slump. The Steel Roses failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2011, and followed up a decent showing in 2015 by scoring just a single goal in 2019 and getting bounced in the round of 16. They then surrendered 17 goals in three lousy games at the 2021 Olympics. Meanwhile, Japan won the 2011 World Cup, made it to the final in 2015, and won back-to-back Asian Cups. The 2023 tournament, back in their home confederation, is a critical opportunity for China to get back on track.

The good news: they won the last major tournament they took part in, coming away victorious in a thrilling 2022 Asian Cup final. They will bring an experienced squad to a tough World Cup group. The bad news: China hasn't played super well of late against elite competition. They've played good European teams four times in 2023, losing 4-1 to Sweden, 3-0 to Spain, and slogging through scoreless draws against Ireland and Switzerland. The silver lining here is that they just beat Russia in back-to-back friendlies in Qingdao, by a net score of 3-1. China has attacking talent, though their dry goal record is concerning, especially in a tough group that includes defending Euro champions England and also Denmark, who are on fire after qualifying with a 40-2 goal record and have shut out Japan, Norway, and Sweden this year. Manager Shui Qingxia, who won a silver medal with China at the 1996 Olympics, is one of the most iconic players in the program's history, and she has the Herculean task of returning her team to the glory days.

Who Is Their Star?

With all due respect to 2022 Asian Cup MVP Wang Shanshan, the star of this team is clearly Wang Shuang. Wang is the engine that makes China go, usually playing in the center of the field as a no. 10. She boasts an impressive international scoring record, with 43 goals for the Steel Roses, though her best attribute is her passing. Wang's specialty is the killer ball in behind a defense, but she's also comfortable building attacks from her own third or shortening the field with a huge switch. China, with their rather paltry recent attacking record, is dead in the water unless Wang can keep doing stuff like this.

Wang is a great runner into space, and her third international goal came against the United States, the lone score in China's 1-0 upset win in 2015.

Wang has spent most of her club career in China, though she also played for one season for PSG, notching seven goals and eight assists. She returned to China during COVID, then joined the NWSL's Racing Louisville in 2022. Louisville has had an up-and-down season this year, though Wang has started 12 league games and played mostly on the right wing in a 4-3-3. That's not her preferred position, and with China, she'll get to step back into the center of the field and run the show.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Zhang Linyan is a fun player. The diminutive forward brings everything you could ask for to the left wing: cunning movement, a nose for goal, zippy speed down the flank. That is all well and good, but what I like most about her is that she has a real live-wire dribble, and loves to terrorize right backs on the ball. She's an insistent threat with the rock, with enviable control of the ball at high speeds, and she's developing the passing vision to really make opponents pay for panic-defending onto her. Right now, though, her best skill is as a goal scorer. Zhang is only 22, so she doesn't have a ton of top-level playing time with the very experienced senior national team, though she's excelled at the club level.

She made the leap to Europe last season, joining Swiss Women's Super League heavyweights Grasshopper FC last summer and knocking in seven goals as the team finished third in the league. I'm impressed here with how many of these goals either start with her flaying a defender one-on-one or end with her dribbling past a flailing keeper to smack one into the empty net.

Though Zhang only has 10 caps, she already has an important goal for the senior side and another massive one for the U-17s. She scored the latter in the 92nd minute of a 5-4 gigabanger win against the USWNT U-17s, and she scored the former against South Korea in the final of the 2022 Asian Cup. China spotted Korea a 2-0 halftime lead, only to storm back and win 3-2. Zhang scored the second and helped on the move that led to the third, another stoppage time winner. She's got a persistence about her.

Who Is Their Enemy?

China used to be the big dogs of Asian soccer, winning every Asian Cup from 1986 to 1999, and though they just won in 2022 and have still never finished worse than fourth place, there's far more parity in the confederation these days. Japan won back-to-back tournaments in 2014 and 2018, and Australia won in 2010 when China was hosting. So those two nations are their principal rivals, in that order. After losing four straight times to Japan, China got their revenge in the 2022 Asian Cup semifinals, sneaking by on penalties. The all-time series is tied at 17 wins apiece, with nine draws, though China does have a plus-14 goal difference. The only Asian nation China has a negative goal difference against is North Korea, though their senior women's team hasn't played since 2019, therefore making them ineligible for enemyhood.

National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool

In Chinese mythology, Meng Po is the goddess of forgetfulness, which I think is a cool concept to assign a deity to. As such she plays a major role in the mechanics of reincarnation. Per Daoist lore, Meng Po was dedicated to studying scripture "until she became unaware of what was past, / And had no care about the future." Different spiritual traditions offer slightly different versions of her origin story and setup—one has her posting up on "The Terrace of Drunken Oblivion"—though the common thread is that Meng Po offers souls a soup of forgetfulness that makes them shed all their memories and associations, preparing them to cross into the underworld. Different tellings of her story alternately paint her as a malevolent figure or a helpful one, though everyone agrees that her soup does the trick.

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

Chinese cuisine is very obviously scran, come on bruv, though I will point out one particularly scrantacular piece of street food excellence. There's this Japanese restaurant near my house that is very good and is extremely distracting to eat at since they are always playing weird food YouTuber travel guy video on their TV at all times. I kind of can't help but look away, and one time I was glad I did not, since I saw a guy doing a little street food tour somewhere in the Sichuan province, and he kept getting these plastic bags full of various little meat specialties. One of them was sauteed rabbit with peanuts and a shit ton of chili oil, and oh my God, can you imagine how incredible that would taste while you're sitting in a light mist, watching your team play?

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

Making it out of the group. Ideally, this team makes it further than they did in 2019 and wins a knockout game, though given China's recent form and tough group, getting past one of England or Denmark and advancing to the knockout rounds alone would constitute success. After failing to qualify in 2011 and posting such a meager showing in 2019, the program needs to show some progress. This is still a talented group. They aren't as good on paper as Denmark or England, but they still have something to show the world.

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