Tianhe Stadium, Guangzhou, 16 November, 1991. The first match of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the line-up for hosts China is 17-year-old Sun Wen, a forward with the Shanghai team from the city in which she was born. Sun remembers it as one of the proudest moments of her life. She went on to play in every game for China in 1991, scoring in the 2-2 drew with Denmark. Four World Cups and two Olympic tournaments later, she finally retired from the international stage in 2006 as one of the greatest women’s players and the most influential female Chinese footballer of all time.
Born in 1973, Sun started playing football at a local sports school at eight-years-old. Influenced by her father, who took her to watch matches in the Chinese men’s league, her talent soon shone through and her individual progress began to develop hand-in-hand with the development of the national team.
Captained by Sun, China made the semi-finals of the second World Cup in Sweden in 1995 but went one better at the Atlanta Olympics the following year, losing narrowly to the USA in the final. But it was at the 1999 World Cup in the United States that Sun made her reputation. She had an inspirational tournament, netting seven goals to claim the Golden Boot as top scorer, as well as the Golden Ball for best player. Despite the nail-biting defeat on penalties in the final against the hosts, Sun recalls the occasion positively: “The result of the match is not important anymore, what’s important was that we pushed women’s football to a higher level.”
For two seasons from 2001, Sun played for Atlanta Beat in the Women’s United Soccer Association, although her appearances were limited by injuries. By early 2003, she had returned to the Chinese league to help prepare for that year’s World Cup, again held in the US. Sun retired after the ‘Iron Roses’ failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals but was persuaded to return in late 2005, helping China to regain the Women’s Asian Cup in 2006.
A player with great ball skills and passing abilities, Sun was also a leader on the pitch and in the dressing room. She finished her career with 152 international caps and 106 goals. Sun’s abilities were rewarded in 2000, when she was joint recipient of the FIFA Women’s Player of the Century, with Michelle Akers of the USA.
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