China's women’s football team has emerged as a symbol of defiance against the coronavirus after coming out of quarantine to move to the brink of a place at the Tokyo Olympics.
With sport at a standstill in China because of the outbreak, which has killed more than 2,500 people in the country, the team have become a source of national pride with their exploits.
Despite being quarantined after arriving in Australia for a qualifying tournament, where they stretched in their hotel corridor and ran up stairs to stay fit, the Steel Roses went unbeaten to set up a two-legged playoff with South Korea, with an Olympic berth at stake.
State media have heaped gushing praise on the team in the last few weeks, and with all domestic football halted because of the virus, their exploits have won prominent coverage.
“Steel Roses’ unbeaten record in Olympic qualifiers brightens Chinese hearts amid epidemic,” said Xinhua news agency, a day after a 1-1 draw with Australia put China into the playoff.
Further disruption is in store for the team, who face South Korea on March 6 and 11 but have to play the home leg, the second game, in Sydney because of the virus.
It follows a build-up to the qualifying competition that could hardly have been worse.
The tournament was pulled out of Wuhan, the city at the centre of the global health scare, at short notice and moved first to Nanjing, then Australia.
Authorities there placed the whole Chinese squad in quarantine on a floor of a Brisbane hotel for a week, where photographs emerged of the players doing stretching exercises in a corridor.
They also ran on the staircases to stay fit, the People’s Daily said.
They were missing four key members, notably star Wang Shuang, the Wuhan native and former Paris Saint-Germain player who was not allowed to leave quarantine at home.
“We came here not as individuals, but on behalf of the whole of China,” said midfielder Tang Jiali, according to state media.
“We hope we can give encouragement to the motherland.”
The squad finally checked out of the hotel on February 6 and flew to Sydney, where the following day they thumped Thailand 6-1 with Tang scoring twice.
“My players were not sharp,” coach Jia Xiuquan said afterwards, despite the handsome victory.
“How could they be sharp after almost 10 days without touching a ball?”
Tang netted again in a 5-0 thrashing of Taiwan and she was at it again to give China a surprise 86th-minute lead over higher-ranked Australia, who then equalised in injury time.
The Steel Roses’ morale-boosting performances hark back to a time when they were one of the best women’s football teams in the world.
They reached the final of the 1999 World Cup, only to lose to hosts the United States on penalties, and have won the Asian Cup eight times.
They have emphatically outshone China’s men’s team, who have reached the World Cup only once and are regularly lambasted as an embarrassment to the country.
China, now 15th in the Fifa rankings, are favourites against the 20th-ranked Koreans, but being forced to play the home leg abroad puts them at a clear disadvantage.
However, Sun Wen, vice chairman of the Chinese Football Association, says they thrive on living up to their Steel Roses nickname.
“The Chinese women’s football team has always had a fine tradition,” People’s Daily quoted Sun as saying.
“We are not afraid of any difficulties and will go all out to fight.”