The 1999 Women's World Cup may not be a coronation for the U.S. team, despite what the shoe commercials, billboards and magazines imply. There's a team at the opposite end of the publicity spectrum that has also established itself as a bona fide contender: China, by virtue of a pair of victories over the heavily favored Americans in the past three months.
A quick team with a swarming defense and perhaps the finest goalkeeper in the world, China poses a serious threat to any American victory celebration.
"We know that China is one of the better teams here," said Swedish Coach Marika Domanski Lyfors, whose team will open the tournament against the Chinese on Saturday afternoon at San Jose's Spartan Stadium.
But few others know that much. China is guarded about its potential, even its participation. The team has closed all practices and denied media interviews. At today's news conference in San Jose, officials headed off a swarm of reporters and cameras with clipped answers.
When Chinese Coach Ma Yuanan was asked if there were any pressure on his team to win the tournament, he shot back through an interpreter, "What country are you from? Does the U.S. government put pressure on the U.S. team?"
If the pressure to win is not political, it is undoubtedly present. China hosted the first Women's World Cup tournament in 1991 and was upset in the quarterfinals by Sweden. The loss resulted in the dismantling of the women's soccer program for more than two years.
In the 1995 World Cup, China returned the favor, knocking the host Swedes out of the tournament and reaching the semifinals.
But it was 1996 when the Chinese team established itself as a world power, reaching the Olympic gold medal game in Atlanta and falling to the U.S. team, 2-1. Getting there was a major accomplishment for a nation where the top female athletes usually gravitate toward swimming or volleyball.
About half of that 1996 Olympic team remains, including Gao Hong, who is considered one of the best goalkeepers in women's soccer, leading scorer Sun Wen and defender Liu Ailing.
China deflects talk about a rivalry with the United States, which it would not face until the final. "We are not concerned now with the competition with the U.S.," said Sun, who scored a goal in each of China's wins over the Americans. "We are focused on the teams in our group."
There was some speculation that the Chinese might pull out of the tournament after the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was inadvertently hit during the NATO airstrikes. But China is here and prepared to play, having played a pre-tournament schedule unmatched by any of the other World Cup participants.
The Chinese recently embarked on a 48-day international road trip that ended in late April, posting a 7-2 record. It included a 3-2 record against the top-seeded teams in the World Cup field, with the wins over the United States and a 1-0 victory over Norway. That tour followed a victory in the 1998 Asian Cup, the tournament from which China qualified for the World Cup. During the Asian tournament, China outscored its opponents 37-1.
China beat the American team in Portugal in March, winning 2-1 to take the Algarve Cup. And in late April, the Chinese ended the U.S.'s 50-game domestic win streak with another 2-1 victory at Giants Stadium.
"They got a lot of confidence out of that," said Lyfors, the Swedish coach. "More confidence than they've ever had before."
The confidence will complement China's already proven athleticism and strong tactical game plan. They are a defensive-minded team led by Gao and defender Fan Yunjie. China plays a more team-oriented game than the United States, whose individual stars are given more latitude to make plays. It's a fact the Chinese take pride in. But at this point, no one is invincible, even the confident Chinese.
They are still scratching their heads after a 4-3 loss to lightly regarded Nigeria in a scrimmage in Los Angeles last weekend. The game was played at West Los Angeles College and Yuanan complained today about the poor field conditions and that the goals at each end of the field were different sizes.
There will be no such problems Saturday, when the playing field will be even. At least until kickoff.
"We are well-prepared for this competition, and we are determined to win this tournament," Yuanan said.