Will China be able to repeat its strong performance in Beijing?
Will China be able to repeat its strong performance in Beijing?
(Photo: FIH / Frank Uijlenbroek)

'In the Spotlight' is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today we feature the women's national team of China.

The Basics:
The Chinese women are currently fifth in the FIH World Ranking. They first appeared in the Olympic Games in Sydney and have progressed rapidly: fifth in 2000, fourth in 2004, and finally silver medalists at home in 2008, losing to The Netherlands in an exciting Final. In Beijing, their final pool game against Australia and victory in the semi-final against defending champion Germany triggered unprecedented enthusiasm, especially after the host nation had seen the elimination of their football, basketball, volleyball, handball, softball and baseball teams. China has played in all World Cups since 1990 but, apart from a bronze medal in 2002, the team has only logged modest results, finishing below par in 2006 (10th) and 2010 (8th).

The Road to London:
China qualified directly for London by winning the 2010 Asian Games at home in Guangzhou, narrowly edging Korea on penalty-strokes in the Final after a goalless draw. With the top two teams guaranteed a London spot, the final should have been an academic affair, but the teams provided an exciting finale. Since their qualification, China has struggled in test games. The team had a poor showing at the London Test Event in May and lost three against the Dutch. Were they testing new systems or hiding their strength in the lead up to London?

Players to Watch:
The Chinese team is rich in individual talent. Forward Fu Baorong led the team in goals at the 2008 Games (five field goals) and has appeared on four FIH All-Star teams (2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010). Defender Ma Yibo was on the All-Star Team in 2007, 2008 and 2009. A powerful penalty-corner striker, she suffered an unusually poor rate of conversion in Beijing with only one goal on 18 attempts. The younger generation is represented by forwards Song Qingling (FIH All-Star Team in 2008) and Zhao Yudiao, a prolific goal-scorer who was only 19 for her first Olympics in Beijing. Goal-keeper Zhang Yimeng is an impressive last rampart who played a key-role in the final matches towards their silver medal four years ago. 

Coach:
South Korean Kim Sang Ryul became the coach of the Chinese women’s team after the Beijing Olympic Games, where he was coaching the Chinese men’s team. He took over from his compatriot Kim Chang-back and his goal is to top his predecessor and win the gold medal in London.  Kim Sang Ryul previously coached the South Korean women’s team up to the 2004 Games, where they finished seventh. He recently said, “there are three factors involved in a team's performance: the coach’s knowledge, the team's hard work, and the support the team gets from the government. China is superior then South Korea in those aspects."

Strengths:
The Chinese women all have superior speed and a high level of fitness. Their hard and relentless work ethic allows them to wear down opponents, and they can make the difference with their swift forwards. Their roster has a slow turnover and is always dense in experience. The Olympics are a priority for them, and they always peak in time for the Games.

Weaknesses:
Although able to play at high pace, their midfield can lack imagination to vary the pattern of play, making it easier for experienced teams to defend against them. While they are known to peak in time for the Games, recent results speak to just the opposite with the team struggling since winning the Asian Games.

Crystal Ball:
Without the enthusiastic support of the home crowd, the Chinese women will have trouble repeating their superb performance of Beijing. They have been on a downward slope in the last years, and their latest results have not been encouraging. With so many teams arriving in London at the top of their game, China could very well slip down to the bottom half of the field, lower than their entry ranking of fifth.