When Andrea Pirlo steered Italy to the FIFA World Cup™ title in 2006, his name was on everyone's lips in China PR. Eleven years on, the midfielder again made headlines in the world's most populous country, but this time due to a comparison to a local female player.
The player likened to the Italian maestro is none other than Tan Ruyin, a 22-year-old central midfielder who has earned recognition as one of the country's biggest revelations over recent years. She started all four matches as the Steel Roses reached the last eight at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, before helping her side to the same knockout stage at last year's Olympic Women’s Football Tournament Rio 2016. And it was her eye-catching performances at Rio 2016 that truly established her as a new star.
The youngster showcased her creativity, vision and shrewdness with the ball as she dazzled a global audience in Brazil. Notably, she broke her international duck with a spectacular long-distance strike against South Africa, which left both opponents and viewers in awe. It was China's second group match at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, having lost the opener 3-0 to the hosts.
Bruno Bini's side led 1-0 and as the clock ticked towards the end, China’s desperate opponents threw everything forward as they sought a late equaliser. With so much hanging in the balance, Tan sealed the tie in unexpected fashion. Latching onto a clearance inside the centre circle, she took a touch before unleashing a dipping shot from 40 metres out, which cannoned off the crossbar and bounced into the net. The weight and spin she put on the ball was such that the Chinese media were quick to dub her ‘Lady Pirlo’.
"The coach (Bini) had urged me to open my national team account before the match," Tan told FIFA.com reflecting on the memorable strike. "He told me to try long-distance shots. When I took the ball, I watched the goalkeeper and I thought I could curl the ball past her. 'Go for it!', I told myself. Then I shot and it was a goal."
"I was happy that I scored my first goal in such fashion," continued Tan, who was shortlisted among just three nominees for last year's AFC Women's Player of the Year. "I am thankful to the people around me for their positive comments. But there is much work to do if I am to become a good player. I will keep working hard as usual and make consistent progress."
U-20 World Cup emergence
Hailing from Guangdong, China's women’s football cradle, it was no surprise that Tan was obsessed with the game as a child. She followed the national team and as a youngster she memorably secured the autograph of Pu Wei - her favourite player and a key member of the golden generation that finished runners-up at USA 1999.
Inspired by her idol, Tan made fast progress and was selected into the national youth team. She went on to figure for China in the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Canada, where she started all three matches. She was named player of the match as China drew with Germany in a remarkable ten-goal thriller. Although her side missed out on a place in the second stage, Tan said that she received a healthy international baptism.
"The U-20 Women's World Cup in Canada was important for me," she recalled. "For the very first time, I had the opportunity of competing against the world's top teams and best players in a global tournament. I watched how they played and I gained experiences, which laid solid foundation for further development. Besides, I also learned how to analyse the rivals and what game plans we should employ from our coaches."
With the 2017 Algarve Cup just around the corner, Tan announced her intention of beginning the New Year with a bang. "Of course, we should try to get our best possible result. But what is more important is that the competition provides us with a great chance to compete against strong foreign teams, and gain exposure and experiences."
And her personal goal? "I hope I can always provide a helping hand for my team, but at the same time be a trouble-maker for the opponents," concluded Tan with a glint in the eye.