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US coach supremely confident heading into tournament
08:55, August 06, 2008

China's women footballers train at the Tianjin Olympic Center on Monday. China opens its Olympic campaign today against Sweden. Xinhua

When asked if her team would win the gold medal at the Olympics this year, US women's soccer coach Pia Sundhage gave a simple one-word response: "Yes."

Her certainty is predictable, but whether or not it is warranted is another question. But she will soon find out exactly how hard it will be to live up to her assertion when the Olympic women's soccer tournament kicks off in Qinghuangdao today in a game between the US and Norway, the only two teams ever to win women's soccer gold.

"Before I was sitting in the stands and just watching the games. Right now, I am in a team that wants to beat Norway," said Sundhage, a former Swedish international. "The US has a lot of medals, so to be a part of this game is a huge thing for me."

The US team won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first year for women's soccer at the Games. Norway won gold in 2000 in Sydney and the US won again in Athens 2004.

All 12 teams in the three groups will be in action today, including Brazil and Germany in Shenyang (Group F) and China and Sweden in Tianjin (Group E).

"In our group, the US is very strong, but generally speaking, Germany is the strongest team. Of course, Japan is strong too," said Norio Sasaki, Japan's head coach.

Norway coach Bjarne Berntsen was not nearly as confident as the US coach about his team's chances, citing a lack of experience.

"We have a very young team, with only one player born in the 1970s," he said. That player is Nordby Siri, a Norway defender, who turned 30 on Monday.

The US and Norway are quite familiar with each other, having met 43 times over the years and twice already this year.

The US beat Norway 2-0 in Melbourne to open the 2000 Olympics, only to meet again in the gold-medal match, where Norway triumphed in overtime. The US won both of the teams' meetings this year, 4-0.

Meanwhile in Tianjin, veteran Chinese coach Shang Ruihua said his team's clashes with Sweden and Canada at the Tianjin Olympic Center will be "good matches" and "worth watching", even though China is missing its striker Ma Xiaoxu, due to a serious knee injury.

The 64-year-old coach said the Chinese used to be strong, having achieved many good results in the past. But the performances of the Chinese women, known as the "Steel Roses", have faltered lately.

"In training, we have focused on two things - creating team unity and training hard to raise technical standards. But we are still some distance behind the top teams in the world," Shang said.

But Shang does believe playing at home will help the host, as has often been the case at the Olympics.

"I believe our players will perform better with the huge support from the home audience," Shang added.

Chinese team captain Li Jie was also confident.

"I was young in 2004, and now I am more mature," Li said. "I am excited at this chance to compete. I hope to show my true level and go as far as possible."

Sweden's coach Thomas Dennerby admitted that it would be a tough game against China in Tianjin. But he was also confident his team would win.

"Our players are experienced and we will handle the home-soil pressure well. We have a good chance to win."

Source:China Daily/Agencies

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