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By ESPN Staff

Host China enters World Cup amid criticism

WUHAN, China -- For China, the women's World Cup is another opportunity to boost its sports stature before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

That could be a tough task.

Once one of the world's best teams, China has slid to a No. 11 ranking, and former players have predicted the team won't go far.

"China is no longer a top-class team. Physically, they are not as strong as Germany, and skillfully, they are no match for Brazil," former goalkeeper Gao Hong told the official Xinhua News Agency. "They are becoming a team with no characteristics."

And striker Sun Wen said in a published commentary that the team is lacking a playmaker who can create threats on goal.

"With such a big tournament, no matter where it is, the public will pay a lot of attention to it," defender Zhang Ying told reporters in the lobby of the team hotel. "This year's World Cup, next year's Olympics will both be like this."

The Chinese open play Wednesday against Denmark in Wuhan, a central Chinese city of 8 million that sprawls along the Yangtze River. Brazil plays New Zealand in the early game of a Group D doubleheader.

"There's definitely pressure, but we just hope to turn that pressure into motivation," midfielder Qu Feifei said Monday.

China heads into the World Cup after four straight losses at the Algarve Cup earlier this year, including a 4-1 defeat to Iceland. Since then, the team has hired its first foreign coach _ Marika Domanski-Lyfors, who led Sweden to the 2003 World Cup finals. She took over April 27 and has steered China to eight wins, four losses and one draw in 13 matches.

The standard is the 1999 Chinese team, which finished second against the United States.

Qu, a 2003 World Cup veteran, brushed off criticism from former players, saying the key is for her teammates to relax and play normally.

"It's not a big deal. After all, we're not ranked as one of the top teams,'' she said. "But I hope that after this World Cup we will get our recognition."