By Duncan Gordon
China’s ambitious plans to reach the summit of world football caused a stir around the world. However, yesterday’s surprise win over South Korea has revived hopes that the national team still might be able to make it to Russia 2018.
In 2015, China’s pronouncements about the country’s footballing future made headlines worldwide. The government stated that China’s aim is to host the World Cup as soon as possible (most likely a bid for the 2030 tournament) and become “a world football superpower by 2050”. For a relative footballing minnow this is big talk, even for a country the size of China. However, to fulfill those aims, China will have to qualify for a World Cup first. Something the men’s national team has not managed to do since 2002.
At that last World Cup in Japan and South Korea, China didn’t produce, failing to score in all three of their group matches. After a 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica in their first game, China played would-be champions Brazil and perhaps did well to keep the score to 4-0 against that iconic side spearheaded by Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. The campaign ended with another disappointing 3-0 loss to Turkey, although that Turkish team would, of course, would go on to push Brazil all the way in the semi-finals. That first World Cup experience caught the imagination of the Chinese public and left them wanting more. However, it perhaps also told them that China had a long way to go before they could really do battle with world football’s big boys. South Korea’s spectacular run to the semi-finals only underlined the fact that China were not even near the pinnacle of Asian football, let alone the global game.
As most of the world’s knowledge of China’s national team is limited to those three less than spectacular performances, many football fans would have raised their eyebrows at the government’s bold announcements in recent years.
Nevertheless, football in China is undoubtedly gaining in popularity. In 2016, President Xi Jinping published a 50-point plan to promote football in China. The government hopes that by 2020, 50 million Chinese citizens will play football regularly, with 30 million of those set to be children. Pretty much no other country in the world can compete with those numbers and if the plan comes to fruition, it can only be good for the national team. However, right now football still ranks below basketball as the most popular men’s team sport in China. More youngsters in Beijing and Shanghai have posters of Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant on their wall than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
(Take a look at this video showing football training from an early age in China)
In addition to football’s burgeoning popularity, the Chinese domestic game is gaining foreign interest due to a surge in blockbuster transfers moving to the Middle Kingdom. Two of the most eye-catching signings this winter were Carlos Tevez’s move from Boca Juniors to Shanghai Shenhua, with the Argentine forward penning a contract that bags him an eye-watering £615,000 a week. That makes Tevez the best paid footballer on the planet. Shenhua rivals Shanghai SIPG also sent shockwaves through the football world by signing Brazil international Oscar from Chelsea for £60 million. Unlike some of the foreign arrivals in China who are in the twilight of their careers, Oscar is a 25-year-old supposedly at his peak. Whether signing big-money foreigners will help boost the prospects of China’s national team or not is another matter. Nonetheless, these developments are increasing the spotlight on Chinese football and getting more children interested in watching and playing the game. China’s football dragon has been awakened, and it is surely a question of when not if the nation qualifies for a World Cup.
China’s first chance to reach the promised land of the world’s favourite sporting festival hangs by a thread. After not so convincingly navigating round 2 of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018 (including two humiliating 0-0 draws against Hong Kong), China made a disastrous start to round 3. In this round of qualifying the remaining Asian nations are divided into two groups of six teams who play each other home and away. The top two teams in each group will automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the third-placed sides will face each other in a play-off. The winner of that play-off must then overcome the CONCACAF (North, Central American and Caribbean) fourth-placed country over another two-legged tie.
After a stirring comeback in their opening fixture in Group A against the might of South Korea, which ultimately ended in a 3-2 defeat, hopes were high that China might at least ruffle some feathers in this group. However, that result was followed by a lacklustre 0-0 draw against Iran before a humbling defeat at home to Syria in Xi’an. That result led angry supporters to protest outside the stadium after the game, calling for the chief of the football association’s resignation. Their call was not heeded but after a 2-0 loss in Uzbekistan in the following fixture, Gao Hongbo lost his job as manager.
His replacement? 2006 World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi. The Italian legend has spent considerable time and gained a solid reputation in China after a trophy-laden three years at China’s richest club: Guangzhou Evergrande. However, managing that team of talented players in the habit of winning games is quite a different prospect to managing the national team. What could have tempted the ex-Sampdoria defender to don the famous red tracksuit top? It might have something to do with the £18 million-a-year salary that he will reportedly receive for the seemingly impossible challenge of guiding China to Russia in 2018. The contract makes Lippi by far the best-paid football manager in the world. That fact did not go unnoticed by the Chinese public and national media. When Lippi’s appointment was announced back in October last year, much of the coverage lamented the decision to throw yet more money at yet another foreign manager. The problems with Chinese football lie much deeper and will need a more ‘holistic’ approach, said the critics. After a disappointing 0-0 bore draw at home to Qatar in his first game at the helm in November, Lippi’s detractors had reason to feel justified in their cynicism.
However, just when China looked down and out, the dragon reared its head. The Helong Stadium in the heart of central China was turned into a red cauldron of passion yesterday as China “welcomed” fierce rivals and World Cup regulars South Korea to Hunan province. The political tensions between the two countries in recent weeks added to the intense build-up to the game and fiery atmosphere inside the stadium. Security was maintained by an unprecedented force of 10,000 police officers inside the ground. The un-fancied Chinese team produced a display of sheer grit and determination to overcome their illustrious opponents. Beijing Guo’an forward Yu Dabao’s glancing header in the 34th minute sent the capacity crowd in Changsha into delirium and secured a 1-0 win that China desperately needed. Social media exploded and the celebrations continued long after the final whistle as the heroes soaked up the praise of their adoring public with a lap of honour and an Iceland-style chant routine. (Watch the video here). One man who managed to keep his head was the manager, emphasising after the game that the team must not get carried away. “We still have space to improve. We didn’t play the same level as we did in the last match against Qatar,” said Lippi, adding that this victory has not won them “a ticket” to the World Cup. Nevertheless, the result has offered a glimmer of hope for Chinese fans that the World Cup dream is still on.
With four games left to play, China unquestionably has a mountain to climb. A third-place finish followed by four play-off matches looks the most likely route to Russia. Whether or not Lippi can pull off a miracle remains to be seen but whatever happens between now and the final whistle of the last group game against Qatar in September, China’s Long March to the World Cup finals shows no signs of slowing down.