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Saturday, July 10, 1999 Published at 02:43 GMT 03:43 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

China goes football mad

Girl power: Han Wenxia practises her saves

By Beijing Correspondent Duncan Hewitt

China's media is hailing the success of the nation's women's football team in the World Cup in Los Angeles as a source of pride for the nation.

The BBC's Philippa Thomas: The Chinese are the favourites
''Like roses blossoming'' said one newspaper, after the team reached the final with a 5-0 thrashing of defending champions Norway.

China is one of the few countries in the world to have full time women footballers - yet the sport has had to develop in the face of public apathy.

There are hopes that the World Cup final against the US will change this - and given recent political tensions between the two countries, it certainly has an added resonance.

A game for the brave

In a Beijing football stadium, the youth team go through their warm-ups; the fresh-faced teenagers in the all blue strip are much like any other group of football crazy Chinese kids - except they're all girls, the latest recruits to a special education regime which produced many of China's Women's World Cup side.

[ image: High drama at the semi-final]
High drama at the semi-final
''They say football's a sport for the brave, it's really exciting,'' says 15-year-old Fang Mingchao, who adds that she plays in the same position as David Beckham of Manchester United.

But she admits that many teenage girls can't understand her interest.

''Girls all like to be beautiful - if you play football, your body changes, you get tanned really dark as well,'' she says.


Despite the long history of organised women's soccer in China, prejudices remain - from traditional ideas that it's unfeminine to male doubts about the quality of the women's game.

[ image: The media: Keeping politics out]
The media: Keeping politics out
Zhang Honghong has heard it all before - now a coach, she played for China in the first ever Women's World Cup in 1991.

''People are very surprised when they hear what I do - they say you don't look like a footballer, they think women who play football should be big and tough,'' she says.

Such attitudes have hindered the woman's game. China now has some 400 full time players, yet Zhang Honghong says it's rare to get a crowd that large.

A number of teams have closed in recent years and the kind of sponsorship and salaries attracted by China's much newer men's league are a pipe dream.

Yet there are hopes that the youngsters being trained here will reinvigorate the game, already boosted by China's silver medal in the Olympics three years ago, and now by the success in the World Cup.

'They blew up our embassy'

And on the streets of Beijing, national disappointment at the failure of China's men's team to reach last year's World Cup finals has added to respect for the women.

''They're definitely better than the men's team,'' one man said. ''They got to the World Cup final didn't they; the men can't even qualify.''

And the final against the US has attracted additional interest given the political tension between the two countries following the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

The state media is attempting to avoid politics and focusing on the sport, but not everyone agrees.

''They blew up our embassy,'' said one man. ''We should give it all we've got to beat them.''

Long-term interest?

For those in the women's game, the question is whether the sport can capitalise on its moment of glory and sustain long term interest - whether, perhaps, it can produce a star to rival David Beckham in the hearts of the public.

Football journalist Tang Yingjun says the current women's team might well achieve this.

''They are many Chinese people's idols I think - many girls wrote letters to the men football players, so it is natural for men to write to the women.

''Sometimes I fall in love with women football players - I like Gao Hong, the goalkeeper,'' he laughs.

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