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China Confronts High Expectations

The team is considered by some the co-favorite as Sun Wen plays her international finale.

September 21, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Their practice was practically lighthearted Friday night before they moved inside to the main stadium at Home Depot Center, as rugby met soccer for about half an hour. That encounter had the players laughing and squealing when diving headers went wide, or better yet, into the net.

So, had a high-spirited youth soccer team wandered onto Field 1 at Carson?

In fact, the temporary playground on the pitch featured China, the runner-up in the 1999 Women's World Cup, and its legendary striker Sun Wen. So the pressure was eased -- for a few minutes at least -- for the team considered by some to be this year's co-favorite with the United States.

It will turn up again, and then some, tonight when Group D action starts with a doubleheader in Carson. The first game will be between Russia and Australia, starting at 5:30, followed by China and Ghana at 8.

Officials said ticket sales for the opening doubleheader at Carson were about 13,000-15,000 as of Friday.

China, of course, was supposed to be the host country, not the guest this time around. Years of planning went by the wayside because of the SARS outbreak in China. The Chinese, who will play host to the 2007 Cup, were compensated in the region of "around $1 million" for costs already incurred, said FIFA's general secretary, Urs Linsi, on Friday.

For China, it all starts again against Ghana close to where it ended four years ago. Sun and her teammates were on the losing end of agonizing penalty kicks against the U.S. at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

And for the 30-year-old Sun, this tournament will be her international finale. Though she wasn't made available for interviews last week despite numerous requests, Sun previously told fifa.com that this would be her last Cup, saying: "I'm getting too old." The spirited competition of China and the United States pushing each other to new heights, and the underlying potential of another Cup showdown, will be captured in an upcoming TV commercial by Adidas. Kristine Lilly and her teammates Aly Wagner, Cindy Parlow and Danielle Slaton, along with Sun and midfielder Pu Wei, appear in the spot.

It plays into stereotypes -- the Chinese are in formation, taking part in a combination of tai chi and soccer moves. The noise wakes up the Americans, who hustle downstairs to check out the commotion, and the spot ends with a subtly charged meeting, with Sun balancing the ball on her foot and passing it to Wagner.

Age and knee and ankle injuries mean Sun is not quite the same player who was the most valuable player of the 1999 World Cup and winner of the Golden Shoe as its top scorer. Still, the Americans are aware Sun remains a substantial threat whenever she touches the ball, whether it is on free kicks, set plays or in the run of play.

"She has carried China on her shoulders for many years," U.S. captain Julie Foudy said in a telephone interview. "She's one of those players, even the Chinese over here know her. She's kind of like Mia [Hamm], she transcends the sport.

"[Kristine] Lilly and I have played against her so many times and we always say to each other that she must have 10 eyes on her head because she sees everything and she always understands where the pressure is coming from."

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Times staff writer Diane Pucin contributed to this report.

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