China women's soccer team striker Ma Xiaoxu, dubbed the "female Wayne Rooney" for her precocious talent, is in danger of missing the Beijing Olympics and being sidelined for at least half a year after sustaining a serious injury during China's 4-0 friendly win over New Zealand on Wednesday in Guangzhou.
Ma, who is newly-appointed French coach Elisabeth Loisel's top choice to partner with striker Han Duan up front, was injured when she tried to control the ball in space but stepped awkwardly in the first half.
She rolled on the pitch in agony and was immediately carried away on a stretcher.
The team doctor thought Ma may have ruptured a ligament in her right knee, an injury that would force her to miss the Beijing Games.
She was sent to Beijing yesterday for further examination and treatment.
Han, whose second-half goal ended her fourth-month international goal drought, said she would keep her fingers crossed for Ma.
"I hope she could be back as soon as possible," Han said. "I will tell her to be relaxed and take everything easy. There are ups and downs in life. I also had a bad injury and did not play for months. But I still had very good performances after coming back."
Coming off a sparkling 2006, a year in which she was voted the AFC's Female Player of the Year and won the Adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe awards at the U-20 World Cup, the 19-year-old Ma struggled through 2007. She failed to impress at this year's Women's World Cup, going goalless as her team bowed out of the quarterfinals.
Rumors about a rift with teammates and reports describing her as "selfish" and "arrogant" during national training and competition further increased the pressure on the young striker.
Frequent injuries throughout the year added to Ma's misery.
During her stint with top Swedish club Umea IK, the big toe on her left foot was stomped and affected her preparations for the World Cup.
She injured her right ankle later in the year during a group match for the Asian U-20 Women's Championships and has struggled to get back in prime form ever since.
Things were looking up for Ma when new coach Loisel took the helm of the national team in October as Loisel's attack-oriented offense is well suited for Ma's strengths - her aggressiveness and eye for the goal are what won her the comparisons to Rooney.
Loisel, who took over from Swede Marika Domanski-Lyfors after she resigned following China's World Cup disappointment, is expected to lead the team to success at the Beijing Games and she is happy with what she has seen of the team so far.
"I have felt something very precious in the girls, that's the passion for football," she said. "They love football very much, and because of this, they will go all out in training and playing. This attitude will make them hopefuls to win a medal in next year's Olympic Games.
"The victory today is a very good Christmas gift for me," said the Frenchwoman, smiling after Wednesday's match.
"Han broke her jinx today. It will help her gain the confidence again. Teenager Zhang Zhen also scored a goal in her international debut. It's very good experience for our young players.
"The only thing I feel sorry for is Ma's injury. I hope she will be OK and come back soon."
Wednesday's warm-up match also wrapped up the second training session under Loisel, who flew back to France to spend Christmas with her family. The team will commence again for a third session on December 28.
China women's soccer, known as the "Steel Roses", peaked in the late 1990s when star striker Sun Wen and playmaker Liu Anling led the team to silver medals at both the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 1999 Women's World Cup. The team has since been in a state of decline, something the local soccer authorities want to see redressed before next summer's Olympic competition.