This commentary was first posted at goal.com.
Chinese fans are used to disappointment, but things were looking up in 2011 thanks to some good performances from the national team and a lucky draw that gave China one of the easier qualifying groups in third round World Cup qualifying through the Asian Football Confederation.
The appointment of former Spain and Real Madrid coach Jose Antonio Camacho was supposed to be the missing piece that carried China to Brazil. However, after Friday night’s 1-0 loss to Iraq, Chinese dreams of samba and beaches now appear to be an impossibility and lingering questions about the nation’s football are being raised again.
While the Chinese Football Association (CFA) tried to sell fans on the idea that Camacho was the right man for the job, there was scepticism. It was obvious that he wasn’t their first choice, and the fans, who were promised a first-class international manager, were underwhelmed with the appointment. There were also the typical CFA slip-ups from the start when there was difficulty in securing a visa or finding a competent translator for the new coach.
Some questioned whether a switch was even necessary; the policy of Gao Hongbo, the former national team star, of nurturing China’s young talent had the national side moving in the right direction. Most of all, there were concerns about the timing of the CFA’s decision to switch bosses. Camacho, having no previous experience in Asia, took over a month before China’s first qualifying match and would have no friendlies and only a brief training camp before that game to prepare his side.
In that first match against Singapore, China earned an unimpressive 2-1 victory, then followed it up with two tough losses – 2-1 away to Jordan and 1-0 at home against Iraq. They had played well in all the games, sometimes even outplaying the opposition, but were unable to finish, wasting far too many chances. The side also struggled with multiple defensive mishaps from veteran players who should have done better.
All that would have been forgiven if they had somehow found a way to win the virtually do-or-die match against Iraq last Friday night, but it wasn’t to be. Once again, they performed well but were plagued by both an inability to score and poor defending. When Iraq scored a late winner, fans fell into a funk. The country’s hopes of making it to Brazil were dashed; it was unexpected and yet unsurprising.
Even after the string of losses, Camacho appears to remain in a comfortable position, with fans’ anger targeted at the players who failed to perform. Many are also placing the blame squarely on CFA head Wei Di and his organisation, as it was their decision to change coach at such a late date, and they are arguably guilty of hiring a sub-par one when they did.
The CFA signed Camacho on a contract which runs until 2014, another fact that raised the rancour of fans, and so it’s unlikely Wei and the CFA bigwigs will fire him. There is the potential for Camacho to resign of his own accord instead of remaining in China to coach the team in friendlies for the next two years.
If Camacho does decide to stay, it will be a test of the Spaniard’s abilities. He was seen to be thwarting the side’s progress when he did away with Gao’s youth policy, instead bringing in a number of veterans whose time had passed. Perhaps due to a European bias, he relied on talent that had spent time overseas instead of homegrown players.
Camacho failed at his main task of taking China to the 2014 World Cup, but in his failure, he’s been given an opportunity. The task at hand is to start developing the nation’s 25-and-under talent pool, giving a chance to a future generation of players and nurturing their talents over the next two years. The Spaniard still has time to right his reputation and leave as a hero, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.
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