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Dragon awakening(龙之觉醒). How Chinese national soccer team rises from the ashes.

Nowadays, Chinese Super League is getting bigger dramatically with huge money. On the other hand, how would all these crazy money pumped into Chinese Super League affect Chinese national team? Since the publication of my last article, the team of dragon (龙之队,nickname for China’s men team) played two crucial ties with South Korea and Iran in World cup qualifier to provide us with some clue.

 

 

Sleeping dragon and Samurai blue: two distinctly different curves

 

Photo from iStock/Bernard Allum

 

Chinese man football team has enjoyed undoubtedly the biggest support in football world, but their loyal and vocal fans are one of the longest suffering fans in the world.

China (PRC) regularly compete in international tournaments since 1980s, and characteristically come close but eventually lose crucial games at life-or-death moments. Before 2004, China team can be roughly compared with Tottenham Hotspurs in English Premier League: a team who looks promising and comes so close to success, but eventually they always find a way to lose important matches and throw away champions league qualification. After the sudden and dramatic decline since the year 2004, the team of dragon became a rank rotten bottom side in Asia, and even old days of near-success seems a fading glory.

In May 19th 1985, China lost 1-2 at home to Hongkong, which was then a British territory, at last game of 1986 Mexico world cup qualifier, and subsequently failed to qualify. This heavy blow triggered fans rioted on streets after the game, and it began a series of misfortune afterwards. This game started to impose a curse for China, that “they will always lose the last game when they only need a draw to qualify”.

For world cup, Asian Cup, Asian game and Olympic games tournaments after that, China team suffered a few “black 3 minutes” (黑色3分钟).China often throw away one goal lead by losing two in space of 3 minutes at crucial games they cannot afford losing, the constant repeat of this pattern worn away the passion and patience of Chinese fans.

The team of dragon has some interesting similarity with Samurai blue. Japan started professional league at 1993, and at their first attempt to world cup (with professional football players) they came close but eventually lost due to what happened in “Agony of Doha”. Their second effort payed off and Japan participated in the glorious summer in France.

In parallel Chinese professional league was founded at 1994, and their assault on France world cup began in high hope. Jinzhou, Dalian witnessed the failed attempt by the golden generation in Chinese football, “the tears of Jinzhou” saw China threw away a 2 goals lead to Iran, dropped points to Qatar and Saudi for missing penalty kick and individual defense errors. China was actually just two points short to go to France, if “ General Fan” (范大将军,nickname for Fan Zhiyi ) scored that penalty or goalkeeper made one more save, China should joined Japan in the summer breeze in France.

China did qualify for the world cup in 2002, the first and only time in their history. Thanks for the goddess of luck, China avoided Saudi and Iran in group while Japan and Korea already automatically went through. The wild celebration across the nation still remains in people’s fond memory today. Unfortunately what Chinese people thought as a breakthrough turns out to be a one-off success. After Japan’s first step on French soil, Samurai blue qualified for five world cup consecutively; but it was a race down to the bottom for China, the sudden death of Chinese football since 2004 was unforeseeable.

 

Rotten dragon and the rise from ashes

 

Photo from iStock/
Photo from iStock/raclro

 

History has a sense of humor: China’s rapid fall begins with a shameful 7-0 win. Yes you read it right, it is not a typo. 17th November 2004, the last game for the first group stage of 2006 world cup qualifier, China played Hongkong at home while Kiewit entertained Malaysia. It should not be a decisive match at first place, for China should have easily swept this group and went through to next stage. Before last game China and Kiewit were set apart by 2 goals difference only, and both team shamed themselves by collaborating with their opponents- Hongkong was then a part of China and Malaysia was willing to help fellow Muslim country going forward, the atmosphere was poisonous before the last round, conspiracy was rife. China shipped 7 goals in Hongkong’s net, while Kiewit recorded a 6-1 win.

The detail sounds hilarious and unimaginable: China sent technical officials in Kiewit to send back information, but their communication failed for most of the game time. Kiewit player meanwhile broke Malaysian goal net in second half, causing a few minutes’ delay, therefore Kiewit game finished five minutes later than China’s game, allowing them a huge advantage in this “scoring competition”. At the dying minutes of game, Chinese officials misread the information and were ignorant of AFC rule, told manager and players that 7-0 is an acceptable scoreline. Chinese players held off the attack by then, hoping for a re-match with Kiewit since the two teams now have the same goal difference. Kiewit then went through under AFC rule by the slightest advantage- they scored one more goal than China.

That hilarious, shameful and tragic elimination proved to be the beginning of an end. Soon the match fixing scandal broke out in Chinese Super League, leading to panic and damage for the reputation of the game in country. Parents started to withdraw their children from participation in football, which laid foundation for the deep rooted problem haunting Chinese football for decades to come. Comparing to the thriving youth football like high school league in Japan and Korea, Chinese kids who played football after 2004 is about 10% of the number before. At one point There was less than 300 players eligible for playing U18 international games, leaving youth coaches in China very little room to work within.

For comparison, during the same period there were 117 teams in Japan played in U13 league games alone. Having to choose a 23 men squad from a pool of 250 players, the humiliating results would not be surprise. National team also suffered one low after another, losing to any minnow teams is no more shocking. One of the worst stigma was when Chinese national team losing 1-5 to Thailand Olympic team, under the management of Real Madrid legend Camacho.

Chinese football suffered from not only the corruption scandal and lack of interest, but arrogance and ignorance of basic football knowledge also hindered the improvement of team dragon. Chinese FA tried many foreign coaches and failed for vast majority of times in history. Wang Jianlin, the richest man in China, whose company sponsored Chinese FA, and offered to pay full salary for a big name coach, like what Mr. Abramovic did for Russian FA. Camacho was his controversy choice, despite the fact that Camacho clearly isn’t the right man for this job.

In the end Camacho’s short tenure was remembered by his ridiculous salary (reportedly 4.5 m Euro per year), dispute about his personal comfort and out-of-contract privilege (Chinese FA paid for a luxury flat for him to live in) and disastrous results. Such cases showed that when professional opinions give way to political and commercial pressure, already weakened Chinese football would fall into complete disgrace.

 

The unexpected revival- road to Russia 2018

 

To no surprise of hardcore Chinese fans, the revival was not brought by some magical foreign names, but an old acquaintance coach Gao Hongbo (高洪波). Mr.Gao was a brilliant striker at his playing days and a coach well respected by fans for his football knowledge and hard working, humble attitude. As a coach Gao led a minnow team Changchun to league title in 2009, but sacked by many clubs for non-football reasons, including Chinese national team.

In an unprofessional environment, interpersonal relations seems more important than football coaching, and Mr. Gao upsets players and officials by his honest speaking, leading to his downfall. He was loved by most fans and football experts, but he can only get his second chance at national team when foreign managers failed spectacularly.

China drew a wonderfully easy group at first stage, Qatar is the only decent side, while Hongkong, Maldive and Bhutan should been no difficult test. French man Alain Perrin managed only a mediocre run, losing to Qatar away and draw Hongkong twice home and away. The two draws with Hongkong turns out to be too much for Chinese fans to swallow.

Political tension was running high between China and hongkong, like Scotland fans the famous “Tartan Army”, most Hongkong football supporters are advocates for Hongkong independence from China. Vocal Hongkong fans booed Chinese national anthem before matches, and Chinese team released a controversial match poster, indicated that the game is between “pure Chinese” and “multi racial Hongkong”.

Two hard fought draws under such intensive atmosphere gave hongkong fans great pleasure, and the anger of Chinese fans led to the sacking of Mr. Perrin. Out of their depth, Chinese FA had no choice but to bring back Gao, the loyal servant who requires little compensation to serve his country.

When Gao took charge, there was only one game left and the dragon’s fate was hung in balance. They had to beat Qatar at home, while hoping the results of three other games would go in their favor. They were very lucky to pull a mini miracle that night. Qatar who already qualified went easy on them, China secured a 2-0 victory and waited for news from other groups. Philippine, who also qualified, beat North Korea 3-2, scorers were players who played in Chinese Super League; Jordan, who was desperate to qualify, failed to win the game at hands. So for the first time after 2000, China ended its 16 years wait to go through to the final group stage in Asia!

 

Bold tactics and limited resource: Gao’s team surprised fans

 

When China team set flight to Korea, fans had realistic expectation and relaxed attitude comparing to when in past few tournaments. Chinese fans understand they already got lucky being there that they are really not entitled to ask for more. Their only hope is that the players would gain experience under their belt, learning from games with Korea, Iran and Qatar, and possibly avoid any huge humiliation.

This realistic mentality set the right tone for this group stage so far. Gao made fantastic tactical changes to make the best use of Chinese player’s quality. As a coach Gao has the mental strength to make tough decisions and his bold moves appears working well. In his first period as Chinese national team coach, he recruited promising local young players and rejected big name old players who used to play in European leagues. His management then left Chinese fans with precious pleasures, including a 3-0 thumping of Korea in East Asian game in 2010. Although Korea only sent half of its key players, but that game lifted spirits of many generations and partly cured “Korean phobia” (恐韩症) for Chinese football fans.

The first two games were Korea away and Iran home, Gao chose a 5-3-2 start line for both games. It was obvious that counter-attack is the only way to go, but Gao’s formation had its delicate consideration.

 

Chinese captain Zheng Zhi, a top Asian player who held crucial defensive midfielder role, declined dramatically this year due to his old age. Instead of gambling on Zheng Zhi or making a one for one change, Gao decided to change formation to make up for loss of individual quality. There is no other big defensive player in midfield, so Gao started three creative small midfielders instead. The left and right back, Zhang Linpeng (nickname Chinese Ramos) and Feng Xiaoting (made Captain in this tournament) were responsible to help midfield defensive duty.

The two most trusted players were both from Guangzhou Evergrande, the team that won Chinese league five in a row and succeeded in Asian champions league. Club football gave them mutual understanding of each others’ game habit and preparation for collaboration in national duty, they were ordered to run extremely hard and cover the width and midfield area.

When settled at back, Gao red the game and switched his attacking strategy. In Korea game, he sent Wu Lei and Sun Ke as two striker/wingers. They are both speedy sprinters, and Wu Lei the young boy who has the cunning movement in attacking third like fox, is no stranger to Japanese fans. He scored and led his team to ACL victory against Gamba Osaka. 

To support these two quick feet, Gao sent Huang Bowen and Zhang Xizhe at midfield, both are small play makers imitating the style of Xavi. The initial plan was to use these play makers feeding deadly passes to strikers, but the defense bumped into problem first. Korean players were too strong for Chinese, Zhang Linpeng, a well-built masculine man who are normally fit for Asian competition, crushed by Heung-Min Son. Son and Chung-Yong Lee were simply too good for Asian games, exposing Chinese defense at width and established a 3-0 lead.

 

After the 3-0 scoreline, Chinese players were relaxed and calmed down soon. Gao sent message of brave attacking rather than damage limitation by sending Hao Junmin in midfield. Hao used to be teammates of Atsuto Uchida in Schalke 04,he has a free kick talent similar to Shunsuke Nakamura.

Hao’s involvement sent players a signal to adjust their attacking more directly, and this message went down well in players.Hao assisted the first Chinese goal and scored a sublime direct free kick to make it 3-2. If the game went five minutes longer, China would have enjoyed the momentum they turned around and stunned Korea by a shocking comeback.

Six days later China entertained Iran at home, while keeping the defense intact, Gao set up a different attacking form. Zhang Yuning played as centre forward while Wu Lei as a supporting winger/striker. Zhang, a 19 years old playing for dutch side Vitesse, is both the youngest boy in Chinese national team and the only Chinese player who played in European league. This fact indicated the quality of Zhang himself, and also the embarrassing state of Chinese football. Zhang’s playing style imitates Drogba, he is like a tower erected in opponent’s box. Hao started from beginning as well, shaping up a different attacking strategy from last game.

The match developed as coach Gao predicted. Iran has overall superiority over China and the gulf of quality was clear to see. While Iran dominated possession of ball, China actually created more threat to goal through long ball to Zhang Yuning and Hao Junmin’s individual brilliance.The game ended in 0-0, it was a scoreline Chinese fans would happy to take before game, but many felt unlucky after watching this game unfolded.

Realistically speaking, China would not get into world cup any time soon. The very small pool of young players limited China so badly, and it won’t get any better in near future. In the last two years Chinese kids are back to football training in unprecedentedly huge numbers, but it would take at least ten years to bear the fruit of this recent reform. Wu Lei and Zhang Yuning are examples of talented young stars for China, but sadly there is no one to compete with them for a starting place in their position.While hundreds of Japanese kids were sent to Europe for advanced football education, Chinese players cannot even make to Korean league nowadays. But despite all the obvious setback, the thin squad and coach Gao surprised fans by exceeding their expectations. The team of dragon did not crumble under the pressure applied by Korea and Iran, the two highest ranking Asian team at this moment. They even sneaked a draw with Iran at home.

President Xi’s dream of winning world cup by 2050 takes a long journey to fulfill, but at least China began their first steps. After years of wasted time and broken hearts, and currently enjoying the wildest investment opportunity in football history, Chinese football finally welcomed some positive news and looks a little bit closer to world cup than before.

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About Zhi Zheng

Zhi Zheng
英国在住時に37のグラウンドを訪れ、アマチュアや下部リーグを観戦した中国出身のセルティックファン。プロのライターとして中国の新聞などに寄稿しており、記事を評価されたことで公式にセルティックから試合に招待された経験も。グラスゴー大学の大学院出身で、結城康平の友人でもある。