After a series of negotiations between the Chinese Football Association (CFA) and the Korean Football Association (KFA), with approval from AFC and FIFA, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Korea will compete for Asia’s final spot in the Tokyo 2020 women’s football tournament.
The Asian qualifier play-off games between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Korea have already been rescheduled twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it has been confirmed that they will take place on 19 and 24 February, 2021.
The Chinese football team, who are nicknamed the Steel Roses due to their fighting spirit, will play the first leg away on 19 February, before welcoming the Republic of Korea team on the 24th of the same month.
If Republic of Korea win the play-off, it will be the first time they have ever qualified for the Olympic Games, having attempted to qualify since 2004 when the regional qualification round was first introduced.
At the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Republic of Korea achieved a number of historic firsts, including their first point, first win and first appearance in the round of 16. Expectations were high for Rio 2016.
But despite many of their players being at their peak during the Rio 2016 qualification round, the team finished 4th as Australia and the People's Republic of China qualified.
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During the 1980s and 1990s, the People's Republic of China were one of the leading teams in women's football. Their achievements during that time include silver medals at Atlanta 1996 and the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup that was held in the USA.
But the retirement of several key players led to a decline in the performance of the Steel Roses in the 21st century and they have yet to reach a podium in either the Olympic Games or FIFA Women's World Cup during the past 20 years.
However, even though they have not returned to their former glories on the global stage, the Steel Roses remain a major force in Asian football.
In 2018, they took silver at the Jakarta 2018 Asian Games, while they came away from the Asian Cup in Jordan with a bronze medal.
The road to the play-offs
The Tokyo 2020 qualification round offers the biggest chance so far for the Republic of Korea to reach an Olympic Games.
With the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea withdrawing from qualifying, Republic of Korea only needed to play two games to secure 1st place in Group A and a play-off final against the People's Republic of China.
But the postponement of the play-off matches may have a negative effect on the Republic of Korea team, whose 'golden generation' including Cho So-Hyun, Jeon Ga-Eul, Ji So-yun is slowly coming to the end.
On the flip side, it has been a turbulent year for the People's Republic of China, with COVID-19 posing one challenge after another. They had originally expected to host February's third qualifying round in Wuhan, before the coronavirus led to the venue being changed to Nanjing and eventually Sydney. It made preparations extremely difficult for the team, who headed to Brisbane in a hurry before being asked to quarantine in a hotel.
The People's Republic of China were drawn alongside Australia, Chinese Taipei and Thailand in Group B of the third qualifying round for Tokyo 2020. The Steel Roses reacted strongly on the pitch with two wins against Thailand (6-1) and Chinese Taipei (5-0). In the final match against Australia that would decide who would top group B, the Australian team drew level during injury time (1-1), leaving the Chinese team second on goal difference.
As a result of that last-gasp goal, the team will now compete against Republic of Korea for a place at Tokyo 2020.
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Back in training
The Chinese women's football team recently gathered for a training camp in Jiangsu, China. Head coach JIA Xiuquan said, "It’s not only to prepare for the Olympic Qualifiers play-off matches against South Korea, but also to ensure that the players are ready, both physically and technically.”
Over the past two weeks they played a two-legged friendly against the Jiangsu Suning men's U16 team, with Team China triumphing on aggregate with a win and a draw.
Coach JIA was satisfied with the performance and attitude his players demonstrated, saying: “We want to imitate the play-off games against Korea through these two matches, that’s why we organised it over two legs. The players have dealt with the pressure on the pitch greatly. I’m pretty satisfied.”
Star striker Wang Shuang, who missed the previous group games due to the lockdown in Wuhan, returned to the training camp. She expressed her happiness about being back with her teammates, saying: “Being able to join the national team again is an opportunity for me. This training camp gave me more time to recover and adjust my mentality and physical condition. 77 days of quarantine in Wuhan affected me, so the most important thing now is to recover and follow the pace of the team.”
Jia also revealed that they will organise rehearsal matches like this in every future training camp. He is expecting the players to gain confidence and experience from the matches.
“They are the new generation of the Chinese women’s football team. In an environment where women's football is developing rapidly, I hope that they can seize this opportunity to show the skills and tactics of modern women's football. And more importantly, to show themselves,” Jia concluded.
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The reality of women's football in Republic of Korea
Although new players are constantly being selected for the national team, the overall number of women’s football players in Republic of Korea is very small compared to the powerhouses of the game. In total, there are around 1,600 players currently registered with the federation.
The mainstay of the team are the players who competed at the 2010 FIFA U-18 World Cup and U-20 World Cup. At that time, the U-17 team won the title and the U-20 team finished in 3rd place.
JI So-yun, who plays for Chelsea FC Women, is Republic of Korea's star player. She led the team at the 2010 U-20 World Cup in Germany and was awarded with the silver ball and silver boot.
JI So-yun is the joint top scorer for the national team, with 58 goals - a feat she achieved during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification match against Vietnam.
But the player doesn’t care about the record. For her, Olympic qualification is all that matters.
During an interview after the match with Vietnam, she said: “The play-offs and qualification are more important than my record. We need to focus on the team’s victory. I have told younger players in the team that I’m not going to retire until I get to the Olympics. I was joking, but that's how desperate I am. We have to qualify for the Olympics so that Korean women’s football can reach a higher level.”
The head-to-head between the People's Republic of China (ranked 15th in the world and 4th in Asia) and South Korea (ranked 18th in the world and 5th in Asia), has China ahead with four wins and one draw. The last meeting between the two teams was at the EAFF East Asian Cup last December, with the match ending in a goalless draw.
The People's Republic of China and Republic of Korea will seek to join Japan and Australia as Asia's representatives in the Tokyo 2020 women's football tournament.
Who will book their spot? The question will be answered next February.