China host South Korea in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday but, with the home side already all but out of the running for a place in Russia, serious issues already threaten their chances of making it to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. China scraped through the first of two group stages in the Asian qualifiers but they have not won any of their five games so far in the second group stage. They sit bottom of their qualifying group – behind Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Syria and Qatar – and, even if they pull off an unlikely victory against South Korea at the Helong Stadium on Thursday night, it would only postpone their inevitable exit.
China are not a million miles behind the continent’s leading teams, such as Japan and Australia, but there is a clear talent gap – not that their supporters or media see it that way. When their elimination arrives, be it next Tuesday when they travel to group leaders Iran, or later, the reaction in China will be as angry as ever from fans and media, who have hugely unrealistic expectations.
In this regard China’s sports media functions remarkably like England’s did until very recently; they build up the hopes of an under-talented national team and then gleefully knock them down when the team inevitably falls short. Chinese supporters and media indulge in this masochistic routine every time an international tournament comes around.
The feeling of disappointment may be intensified this time around, though, after a surprising set of events in the first group stage took China through to the second round of qualifying for the first time since their only World Cup appearance in 2002. After a clumsy campaign, which included two goalless draws against Hong Kong, China went into their last group game knowing they would only qualify if they beat Qatar, who had already qualified, and three other results went their way.
The footballing gods smiled on China that evening. They defeated a second-string Qatar side 2-0 and scorelines elsewhere lined up, including a shock defeat for North Korea against the Philippines. China were extremely fortunate to avoid an early exit but fans couldn’t control their elation at a moment of rare success. Ecstatic supporters were pictured wearing “Road to Russia” T-shirts in anticipation of their World Cup qualification dream finally coming true, as older diehard fans reminisced over pictures of their adventures in South Korea at the 2002 World Cup (where they lost all three games and didn’t score a goal).
Fate needed little tempting though and, sure enough, stronger opposition in the second group stage has brought the Chinese crashing back to reality. Defeats to South Korea, Uzbekistan and even war-torn Syria mean they are bottom of the group at the halfway point.
Despite the national team’s struggles, expectations in China remain improbably high. The explosion of interest in Chinese football and the government’s high-profile attempts to boost the fortunes of the national side have raised hopes of China becoming a decent team. But the reality is that renewed efforts, even if they deliver positive outcomes, may not take effect in time for Qatar 2022.
At the start of this year, the government acted to rein in the massive transfer spending by Chinese Super League clubs as they were embarrassed that clubs were spending so much money on foreign superstars while the country is failing to produce its own top talent. The government put several measures into place, such as rules to cut spending and redirect funds into youth development and other measures to limit the clubs’ money-burning ways.
While some of these changes were well intentioned and looked good on paper, many were rushed through and risk holding back the game further and frustrating supporters even more. The most shambolic was a cut in the number of foreign players each team could use in one game from from four to three – a decision that came right in the middle of the transfer window. The sudden change threw clubs’ transfer plans into disarray, leaving expensive foreign players sitting in the reserves.
Giving Chinese players as much playing time as possible without reducing the positive benefits foreign players bring seems like a logical step but the timing of the change alienated clubs, who had previously agreed a foreign quota change with the league in December. However, the General Administration of Sport, a government organ that controls the Chinese football association, suddenly decreed a new directive. The move appeared ill-thought through, showed disregard for the realities football clubs face and undermined confidence in the league.
Most worryingly for Chinese football’s long-term prospects, this chaotic change of plan showed that the game is still greatly influenced by officials who don’t understand the sport. China has placed enormous emphasis on improving its football – a 50-point reform plan released by the state in 2015 called for a huge overhaul, including a call for the football association to fall into line with Fifa requirements and become independent from government.
But recent developments show this is yet to be achieved. Fifa remains silent on the matter, which undermines China’s World Cup prospects. Footballing experts need to be able to reform the game without sudden rule changes being imposed upon them from outside.
Another of the surprise new rules implemented at the start of this season was also aimed at developing native talent. Chinese Super League clubs are now required to start matches with at least one U23 player on the pitch and another on the bench – a move that was widely welcomed, as young players have struggled to get time on the pitch in recent years.
The current crop of domestic talent is perhaps the poorest since professionalism began. Even China’s most successful generation could only exit the World Cup at the first opportunity with no goals scored. In the 1990s and early 2000s, players such as Crystal Palace’s Fan Zhiyi or Manchester City’s Sun Jihai were respected as solid, capable footballers, but they were by no means star players in the UK, and nor were China’s various other successful exports to Europe at the time.
The current national squad have few, if any, players who would have been good enough to make it into the squad that went to the World Cup in 2002. The modern generation grew up during Chinese football’s lowest ebb in the late 1990s and 2000s, when corruption almost killed the game. And the flow of talent was already low because Chinese parents – who are more influential than their western counterparts in guiding their children’s leisure – prefer children to spend their spare time studying rather than sport.
China is now paying the price by having to make rules forcing clubs to give U23 players time on the pitch. But the timing of this rule also created problems. In their rush to change the regulations, the authorities didn’t stipulate just how long U23 players must remain on the field. Inevitably, some clubs have started hauling off youngsters as early as the 15th minute, not only limiting their time on the field but also risking damaging their confidence.
Consequently, the average age of players in the China team is going up. The former Charlton and Celtic player Zheng Zhi is likely to lead the team against South Korea. The 36-year-old, who will be winning his 95th cap, remains one of the country’s best players, his presence a reminder of China’s current inability to produce a player of his calibre to lead them to Qatar 2022.
This article also appeared on The Guardian Sport Network