August 26, 2000


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China's soccer roses bloom

Jeremy Page in Beijing

The Chinese soccer team warms up in BeijingBoasting elaborate coiffures, immaculate makeup and not an inkling of a shin pad, the Chinese women's soccer team look like they are in a lineup for a fashion show.

A promotional poster, plastered around Chinese stadiums and sports clubs, shows team members posing elegantly in the latest trends -- a far cry from the grass-stained strip they sported when they narrowly lost the World Cup final to the United States last year.

China's women are set to clash again with their rival soccer superpower at the Sydney Olympics this year.

And this time, China's "Roses" are taking a leaf out of their U.S. counterparts' book by cashing in on their looks to attract media, sponsorship and fans to the fledgling women's game.

The two teams basked in the media spotlight when the United States defeated China on penalties in the World Cup final before a television audience estimated at more than 100 million.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin even telephoned the team to wish them luck before the match, and U.S. President Bill Clinton met both sides after watching the game in California's Rose Bowl.

While the U.S. team has translated the hype into lucrative pay packages, sponsorship deals and larger crowds at women's games, China has largely failed to break the traditional perception of soccer as a macho game for men.

"Of course I hope the women's team win," said soccer fan Yu Wen, 24, standing outside the Workers' Stadium in Beijing after watching the Chinese men's team lose 1-0 to South Korea.

"But it's not the same as the men winning, is it?" he said. "I mean, they're girls."

The new promotional campaign aims to change all that by using the same marketing skills which made American Brandi Chastain a household name and pitched Mia Hamm alongside basketball superstar Michael Jordan in a Nike advertisement.

"We're not going begging for sponsors," said Jean Huang of sports marketing firm ISL Asia Pacific, which holds exclusive marketing rights for the Chinese women's team.

"Instead we encourage the players to consider themselves valuable, to create an image," she said. "We want to make them look positive, confident... and beautiful."

"Then the sponsors will come to them."

For a nation that eats, drinks and sleeps football, there is precious little interest in the women's game despite the achievements of the Roses. Apart from finishing runners-up in the World Cup, they took the Olympic silver medal in 1996 and won six consecutive Asian championships from 1991 to 1997.

The men's side, by contrast, has never even qualified for the World Cup and did not make the grade for Sydney.

China has a professional women's league, but its 200 professional players are paid a fraction of their male counterparts. There are only 3,000 amateur players, according to the Chinese Football Association.

Brandi Chastian (US) celebrates 1999 World Cup winning penaltyThe Roses admit they are jealous of their U.S. rivals' popularity, and frustrated by the apathy of the Chinese public.

"Oriental culture has traditionally regarded men as superior to women," says goalkeeper Gao Hong, standing in the rain after a punishing fitness workout at the team's training camp in a navy base on the outskirts of Beijing.

"Whether we are world champions or Asian champions, nobody really gets too deep into the sport or examines women's lives or the female players' experiences," she says.

"We are more like a cosmetic product."

Players say sexual discrimination in sport starts at a young age when talented female athletes are channelled towards sports deemed "feminine", such as gymnastics and diving.

Most families in China are allowed only one child, and are loath to let a daughter play contact sports for fear of injury.

State subsidies for women's sport have also dropped since the days when Chairman Mao Zedong preached, "Women hold up half the sky".

"This is the biggest difference between us and the U.S. team," Gao said. "There it's a real sport with the same treatment as the men's game."

"It's still early days for us. We are struggling to survive, while they have already written themselves into the front pages of the history books."

ISL Pacific says attitudes are changing. The team has attracted sponsorship from firms like China's largest PC maker, Legend Holdings, and Chinese television began live broadcasts of women's matches for the first time this year.

The prospect of another showdown with the United States, a frequent target of Chinese nationalist fervour, has ensured wider media attention than there was before the World Cup.

And fans can now log onto a website ( showing personal details and columns about players' lives.

"We want to make their careers more vivid, to show not just how they play on the pitch but how they live their personal lives as well," said Huang.

"They would like to share some of their lives with the fans."

But Chinese players accustomed to a reclusive lifestyle within the state sponsored sports apparatus are not so sure.

Some worry that a post-feminist promotional campaign highlighting looks rather than skills will merely reinforce traditional perceptions of women.

"Personally I am not too happy about this," said captain Sun Wen, top scorer and voted best player at the World Cup.

"But like all the other players, I am willing to do this sort of publicity to promote and develop women's football," she said. "Chinese women's football is not just about us 20 people, it is a common interest of all women players."

An Olympic gold might finally win China's women the respect they deserve, Sun said.

But they face a rocky path to the final after drawing top-seeded Norway, Nigeria and the United States, all potential champions, in the first round.

China beat the United States in the early stages of the Pacific Cup in Australia in June, but the U.S. side won the final of that contest, as well as this year's Algarve Cup and Gold Cup.

Behind their lipstick-lacquered smiles, the Roses are craving for revenge.

"China and the United States are the pre-eminent powers in women's soccer," Sun said. "We were really disappointed to lose the World Cup last year.

"If we meet in the final, we will not let such an opportunity pass again."

China-related Olympic stories:

China's rural folk eye sporting lifeline

China hopes to vault to gold

Asians prepare to defend Olympics reign

Strongwomen carry Chinese hopes

Shamed China looks to make big splash

Asia still to turn people-power into gold

China on anti-doping offensive

Surprise dope test for Chinese athletes

China faces uphill battle

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