Jia Xiuquan, head coach of China's national women's football team, speaks about his side's long-fought journey to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
By sportswriters He Leijing and Wang Hengzhi
NANJING, China, April 15 (Xinhua) -- Jia Xiuquan stood near the football pitch with bated breath, waiting for the final whistle, and suddenly, tears sprang to his eyes as over 13,500 fans rose to their feet with thunderous applause and cheers.
58-year-old coach Jia and his players in China's national women's team, also known as the Steel Roses, have booked a spot at the Tokyo Olympics after drawing 2-2 with South Korea after extra-time in the second leg of their Asian qualification playoff on Tuesday, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
"Sorry! We made you guys nervous," said Jia at the post-game press conference.
Star player Wang Shuang contributed one goal and one assist as the Steel Roses came from 2-0 behind at half-time to bag the last Asian ticket to Tokyo.
"The match was even harder than I expected. I would like to thank all my players for not giving up. As long as we can carry on the spirit, I believe our team will become better and better," Jia said.
NEVER GIVE UP
Coach Jia finally had a sound sleep after the long-awaited moment that set the tone for their journey to the Olympics, but when speaking about the game, his nerves still jangled a bit.
"I was thinking that if we lost, I would then take all responsibility," said Jia, referring to his feelings when China trailed 2-0 at the interval.
But Jia unconsciously trotted to the locker room, trying to be calm and collected enough to encourage his players. "I needed to reconsider the tactics, and most importantly, think about how to motivate the girls without giving them too much pressure," he said.
"We never give up! Never. As long as there's time remaining, there's a chance for us!" Jia's heartening voice lingered in the locker room.
Jia made several substitutions and adjustments in the second half, and the changes paid off.
Yang Man came off the bench to become the turning point. The 1.86-meter center forward controled the majority of long balls and headed home a free-kick from Wang in the 68th minute, forcing the game into extra-time.
"The only thing we could do then was to fight bravely. My players were united and executed the plan well," Jia noted. "My players were under great pressure. I am so proud of what they did on the pitch -- holding out to the last minute of a two-hour match."
China is ranked 15th in the world, three spots ahead of South Korea. "The gap between the two teams is very small," Jia said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the road to Tokyo extra bumpy, and hosting sporting competitions against overseas teams would be a test of anti-epidemic protocols in any country. "There's not much difference in the COVID-19 protocols for China and South Korea. People's lives come first and both countries follow that rule," Jia said.
"Our matches had been postponed for a long time, but all of us had a strong desire to win," he added. "I competed in the 1988 Olympics as a player. I really wanted to get this Olympic ticket as a coach, together with my players."
"I hope there will be more fans, more footballers and more media outlets cheering for the women's team, whether they are watching the game in the stadium or not," Jia said.
Discussing specific goals for the upcoming Olympics, Jia appears rather composed. "Every step you take counts, and we only want to be better and better," he said.
And now, Jia is confident his players will retain their fighting spirit from this game, which has already inspired millions of Chinese people.