It was October 26, when the Paris Olympic women’s football qualifying showdown between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was reaching its peak.
As China struggled to contain the visitors’ offensive prowess at the raucous Xiamen Egret Stadium, coach Shui Qingxia decided it was time to adjust their tactics. She planned to bring on Tu Linli to shake things up. However, just as Tu was about to step onto the pitch, it was discovered that she had forgotten her participation permit, rendering her temporarily ineligible to play.
The cameras captured a moment of panic as Ma Xiaoxu, a member of the Chinese coaching staff, hastily darted back to the locker room in search of the missing permit. In the meantime, China conceded a goal, falling behind to DPRK. Eventually, Tu managed to retrieve the permit, making a belated entrance as a substitute.
But the drama didn’t end there. A few minutes later, when Shui intended to send on Liu Yanqiu, the same permit mishap occurred once again, leaving Shui fuming and stamping her feet in frustration.
While it would be unjust to lay the blame solely on the delayed substitutions for China’s ultimate defeat to DPRK, it does offer a stark portrayal of the disarray and disorganization plaguing the team’s management.
In their next pivotal encounter against South Korea, China found themselves in a must-win situation to progress beyond the regional qualifiers. However, their efforts fell short as they could only muster a 1-1 draw, ultimately dashing their hopes of securing a coveted spot in Paris.
It was a shocking turn of events for the team that had participated in every Olympics since the inclusion of women’s football in 1996, except for their absence in the London Games of 2012. The unexpected failure proved to be a decisive blow, leading to the dismissal of Shui on Monday.
“The contracts of the head coach and her coaching staff have been automatically terminated in accordance with an agreement,” stated the Chinese Football Association (CFA) in a terse statement. In the meantime, an interim coaching team will assume control for the upcoming two friendly matches against the United States next month, the CFA added.
A mere 20 days ago, Shui basked in well-deserved glory as she was crowned the Women’s Coach of the Year at the esteemed Annual Awards gala of the Asian Football Confederation. This prestigious recognition served as a testament to the tremendous strides China had taken under her tutelage since she made history by becoming the first woman to lead the Steel Roses in 2021.
In a relatively short period under Shui’s leadership, China showcased their mettle by overcoming formidable adversaries like Japan and South Korea to emerge as the champions of the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup. In achieving this feat, Shui again carved her name in history as the first individual to capture the tournament’s victory both as a player and a head coach. This long-awaited triumph carried immense significance for China, whose last Asian title dates back to 2006.
The momentous ninth title not only brought glory to China but also secured their spot in this year’s Women’s World Cup. However, the tournament turned out to be a nightmarish experience for Shui and her players.
China’s journey came to a swift end in the group stage after a devastating 6-1 defeat at the hands of England. It was only through the heroic efforts of their goalkeeper and some wastefulness from the English players that the margin of defeat was not even more lopsided. This humbling exit was particularly hard to bear for a nation that once stood at the pinnacle of women’s football in Asia and consistently challenged the finest teams on the global stage.
Despite the immense disappointment, the CFA opted to stand by Shui, as she expressed her determination to guide China towards redemption in the 2024 Olympic women’s football qualifiers. Regrettably, her efforts fell short once again, and this proved to be the final straw.
Having spearheaded the development of women’s football, China achieved remarkable progress in the early stage, but as women’s football in traditional European powerhouses surged and flourished, China’s initial head start gradually waned. Even in Asia, China no longer enjoy the advantageous position they once held.
Having experienced an illustrious career as a midfielder herself, few individuals can comprehend China’s stunning descent better than Shui. In a recent press briefing, the 56-year-old lamented the unfortunate sequence of setbacks encountered by the team, acknowledging the stark reality of the colossal gap that exists between China and the world’s best teams.
Looking ahead, Shui noted, “We need [to] undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the gap and determine the most effective means to enhance our performance. By meticulously analyzing our shortcomings, we can identify areas for improvement and develop strategies to work harder in the future.”
Alas, with the unveiling of Shui’s dismissal, the CFA has deemed her involvement unnecessary in the crucial process of reform and self-reflection. As for when China will regain their former glory, that remains an enigma, a question left unanswered in the depths of uncertainty.