Buxton to keep China on course

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China's English coach, Ted Buxton, is confident his side are on course for France 98 - despite a tough World Cup qualifying match against one of the Asian favourites, Iran, today.

Buxton, who was an assistant to Terry Venables when he was the England coach, said a dramatic change had come over China in the nine months he had been with them. They have improved in nearly area on the field. It has been beyond my expectations. You can see it in China's world ranking which has shot up thirty places."

Buxton was brought in as a consultant with the former England goalkeeper, Jimmy Rimmer, last year for the World Cup qualifying tournament. "Nine months ago I thought it would be a miracle for them to get through. Now I think they have a very good chance of winning one of Asia's automatic qualifying places."

The winners from the two Asian groups will qualify automatically for the finals and the two second-placed teams will play off for a third spot. The loser of the play-off will play Australia, where Venables is now in charge, for a fourth place.

"I speak to Terry nearly every day and I think he is a bit worried now. He keeps asking me about the Chinese players and I say: `You tell me about the Australians'." Buxton said Venables had received special reports on China's recent tour of England for matches against Premiership sides, which Buxton described as hugely beneficial. "Our defence has improved a lot and now I think there are four or five players that could make the grade in the Premiership," he added

The Dalian stadium in Peking will be packed today and, for the first time, fans will be coming from all around China for the match, with special transport laid on from all over the country.

In the United States, the country's first women's professional soccer league will kick off next year with the hope of building on the success of the States' gold medal performance at the Atlanta Olympics.

The formation of the eight-team league, the National Soccer Alliance (NSA), was announced on Thursday by the League's Development Consultant, Jennifer Rottenberg.

The league, which will feature US international players, college graduates and some foreign players, will play a 20-game season from 17 April to 21 June with a championship to be played on 4 July.

Tisha Venturini, a member of the US national team and one of 18 American players who will play in the NSA, said: "Other countries have [women's] leagues going on, they get an edge on us every day."

The original eight teams will be based in Seattle, Raleigh, North Carolina; San Jose, California; Fullerton, California; Piscataway, New Jersey; Bethesda, Maryland; the Boston area; and in Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas.