Never mind the language barrier. China Coach Ma Yuanan's one-liners this evening were effectively translated into any tongue at this Women's World Cup.
Ma on Sunday night's semifinal opponent at Foxboro Stadium, Norway: "They play simple and rough."
Ma on the impact of his team's three cross-country trips during the tournament: "We lost a lot of energy. Sometimes [the players] fall asleep easily in team meetings and in media sessions."
Ma commenting on the decisive goal during China's 2-1 loss to the United States in the 1996 Olympic gold-medal match: "Offside!"
Ma on a mistake by a German defender that led to the first U.S. goal in the quarterfinals: "It saved the Americans."
Ma also insinuated that the United States had an advantage in the quarterfinal victory over the Germans because President Clinton held up the start of the game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (which was not true).
Ma on other teams' fortunate bounces and goals: "We don't depend on luck; we depend on our ability."
All of those responses were delivered with a playful smirk, more to entertain than to incite a handful of American and European journalists and a swarm of Chinese reporters. But in reply to one particular question, Ma appeared quite earnest, and based on China's results during the first two weeks of the tournament, there was no reason to interpret it any other way.
"The way we are playing," he said with a straight face, "we will be a team in the final."
If China replicates its four previous performances, Ma's statement seems almost certain to hold true. Following a troublesome 2-1 victory over quarterfinalist Sweden in its first-round opener, the Chinese have quietly and efficiently shoved aside their other opponents.
Their 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Russia Wednesday in San Jose was one-sided in everything except the score. (Shots: 24-2. Corner kicks: 6-1.) Possession time wasn't kept, but it was as if China had three extra players on the field. Flashy goalkeeper Gao Hong was called upon to make one save, and it came during injury time of the second half.
The focal point of the attack is fleet forward Sun Wen, whose inventive play and proficient scoring touch has placed her alongside American Mia Hamm and Brazil's Sissi as the tournament's top performers. Sun has accumulated five goals and two assists, while scoring partner Jin Yan has three goals and an assist.
China also seems to be playing like a team on the brink of a championship. Its confidence and composure are clearly evident and have helped bury the memories of a quarterfinal home loss to Sweden in the 1991 Women's World Cup and a semifinal defeat against Germany four years ago.
Their play also has helped boost soccer in China, which despite its enormous population has failed to build an international power in the men's game. China's men have never qualified for the World Cup and haven't showed much promise at the youth levels.
"Men's soccer has been improving dramatically," Ma said. "We need more time. We'll see in the future, we'll be happy one day."
What is the Norwegians' take on China's women's team?
"We've seen here what we've seen before" from China, Coach Per-Mathias Hogmo said. "We know them well. They are a very strong team. They have good skills, good defense and they play good possession football. We look forward to playing them. It's a great challenge for our team."
Notes: About 27,000 tickets have been sold for Sunday's game, with a crowd of about 30,000 expected. . . . Norway and the United States are the only teams to play in the semifinals in each of the three Women's World Cups. . . . In four meetings in recent years, China has a 2-1-1 record against Norway, including a tie at the Goodwill Games on Long Island last summer.