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Ninety minutes from glory: China’s 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign - Wild East Football
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Ninety minutes from glory: China’s 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign

China entered the qualifying rounds for Spain’82 as something of an unknown quantity having not participated in the competition since 1958. They ended it having fallen just one win short of qualification.

After withdrawing from both FIFA and the IOC in the late 1950s over the ‘Taiwan question’, China were deprived of officially sanctioned competitive matches. They still played friendlies with teams from countries that were political allies, but even this stopped when the Cultural Revolution effectively meant the disbandment of the national side. With the death of Mao, China’s international isolation gradually reduced and the nation’s football team were at the forefront of this. They gained friends and international experience on tours of the USA, South America and Europe  in the late 1970s and were ultimately rewarded by readmission to FIFA. In fact, they almost qualified for FIFA’s most prestigious tournament at the first time of asking.

First round

Li Fusheng and Rong Zhixing after the successful tournament in Hong Kong

Twenty countries from Asia and Oceania were competing for two places at Spain ’82. China’s campaign began at a six team mini-tournament in Hong Kong in late 1980. Coached by Su Yongshun, the Chinese 4-3-3 matched the skill of the Cantonese with the more physical approach of the northerners. In their favoured line-up goalkeeper Li Fusheng was protected by a back four of three Liaoning players – Lin Lefeng, Chi Shangbin, Zang Cailing – and Cai Jinbiao from Guangdong. The midfield trio were Liaoning’s Huang Xiangdong, Tianjin’s Zuo Shusheng and the more creative Chen Xirong of Guangdong. Ahead of them were two more Cantonese, Gu Guangming and Rong Zhixing, and the lone Beijinger Shen Xiangfu.

However, it was Tianjin forward Chen Jingang who scored China’s late goal in their 1-0 victory over Hong Kong in their first game. The Chinese then saw off Macau 3-0 on Christmas Eve and Japan 1-0 on Boxing Day, Rong Zhixing scoring in both games. This put China through to the semi-finals of the mini tournament on new year’s eve where they would again face Hong Kong at the old Government Stadium. Nil-nil after 90 minutes and extra time, the game would be decided on penalties. Chan Fat Chi missed for Hong Kong, whilst Rong held his nerve to score and send China into the final against North Korea.

Victorious coach Su Yongshun hoisted aloft by his players

In an eventful game, North Korea took the lead almost immediately but were pegged back just before half time by a back post volley from Huang Xiangdong. Chen Xirong put the orange shirted China in front after a goalkeeping howler but Li Fusheng made a mistake of his own to allow the North Koreans to level. The game was still tied at 2-2 in the second half of extra time before a screamer from Huang put the Chinese in front again and the win was assured when Gu Guangming squeezed a shot between the keeper’s legs shortly afterwards. Rong was named the best attacking player of the tournament and keeper Li Fusheng the best defensive player, but more importantly China were through to the final round of qualification.

China line up to face New Zealand at Gongti

Final round

China now faced Kuwait, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia knowing that coming second in the round robin format held between September and December 1981 would be enough to secure a place at the world cup finals the next summer. Their opening two games could hardly have been worse though, a 0-0 draw with New Zealand at Gongti and an injury to the talismanic Rong, followed by a 1-0 loss to the All Whites in the return fixture in Auckland.



Cai Jinbiao and Chen Xirong lose out in the air

China’s form then changed as they won their next three games, beginning with a home win against reigning AFC Asian Cup Champions Kuwait. This 3-0 victory cemented Rong’s status as a national hero as he played with his leg heavily strapped after his injury against New Zealand a month earlier. He got the first goal before his Cantonese teammate Gu Guangming added a second and Shen Xiangfu rounded off the scoring. The Chinese then played back-to-back games against Saudi Arabia in Kuala Lumpur as the two countries did not have diplomatic relations at the time. China went 2-0 down in the first half but scored four without reply in the second to win 4-2 with Gu and Huang again on the scoresheet, joined by Chen Jingang and Zuo Shusheng whose goal had sparked the comeback. A week later, China beat the same opponents 2-0 on a waterlogged pitch with first half goals from Huang and a header from defender Cai Jinbiao.

Before China’s crucial game in Kuwait

This result left China knowing that a win in Kuwait would be enough for them to qualify; they were 90 minutes from glory. However, the Kuwaitis weren’t Asian Cup champions for nothing and beat China, who were missing Huang, 1-0. China remained top of the group but had a nervous wait to see whether they had gained enough points to qualify.

Kuwait then beat Saudi Arabia and drew with New Zealand to qualify as group winners. To knock out China and finish second, the All Whites of New Zealand then had to beat the Saudi’s in their final group game by an unlikely six goal margin; China were still 90 minutes from glory. The All Whites were no strangers to lopsided score lines though, having beaten Fiji 13-0 in an earlier round, and duly scored five without reply in the first half in Riyadh. The Saudi’s toughened up in the second half and the All Whites couldn’t find the extra goal they needed. This left China and New Zealand tied on seven points and a goal difference of plus five each; the teams were headed for a winner takes all play-off and, for the third time, China were 90 minutes from glory.

The play-off

China celebrate their comeback against Saudi Arabia

As the Chinese team returned to training, a diplomatic scramble was taking place to find a suitable neutral venue. FIFA ruled out New Zealand’s suggestion of playing the game in Spain and also backed down from their initial decision to play in Kuala Lumpur following New Zealand protests that it was not neutral as China had already played two qualifiers there. In the end, the game was to be played in front of a sell-out crowd at Singapore’s national stadium on 10th January 1982.

China lined up at almost full strength, with Cantonese Wu Yuhua replacing forward Shen Xiangfu. Standing between them and the world cup were an All Whites side who represented a country with a much smaller population than China. Whilst the Chinese could count of the support of their diaspora in the stands in Singapore, the All Whites drew on international links of their own through English coaching duo John Adshead and Kevin Fallon, and English born captain Steve Sumner. However, they were without key player Brian Turner who had to watch on TV from New Zealand.

Li Fusheng keeps New Zealand at bay in 1981

Turner saw his side take a 2-0 lead thanks to a first half goal from English born Steven Wooddin and a great strike from a young Wynton Rufer early in the second half. China brought on Liu Chengde and Yang Yumin as they chased the game and they pulled a goal back after a foul on Liu gave them an indirect freekick. Rong tapped the ball to Huang whose thunderbolt of a shot gave All Whites keeper Richard Wilson no chance. There were still 15 minutes left and the tension grew as China pressed for an equaliser. The New Zealand defence held firm though and they hung on to win 2-1 . China’s world cup hopes were over. After being ninety minutes from qualifying on three separate occasions, there would be a further twenty years of hurt before China finally qualified in 2002.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.



  1. Flyingkiwi

    24/03/2017 at 07:24

    Well remember NZ’s 1982 World Cup qualification and, particularly, the play-off victory over China. Heady days to be a young “soccer-nod” in Aotearoa. 🙂

    • Donald Ross

      30/03/2017 at 02:13

      A few of the NZ players were actually born in England. Do you know if they had family connections to NZ or if they qualified to play for NZ on residency grounds? Was much made of this in NZ at the time?

      • Yiddo Huayi

        31/03/2017 at 08:47

        Our fantastic captain Steve Sumner (recently RIP) was a real Pom as were the coaches Kevin Fallon and John Adshead.

        I think most of them had residency (if not citizenship by naturalisation).

        Not a big deal that our team wasn’t NZ born and bred that I recall.

        But FK is right in that the team of 82 created a significant sea change in the sport in NZ which was lost at the international level in the late 1990s and rekindled in the mid 2000s particularly with the creation of the Phoenix (2007) and then later with the 2010 WC.

        I see the new proposal for the 48 team WC tournament has Oceania with one guaranteed spot. I think this will really be a fillip for the game to kick on and become even more developed in NZ (assuming we can beat the Oceania teams consistently).

        • Flyingkiwi

          01/04/2017 at 11:20

          Kiwis are fickle sports-fans and, whilst it is true that a lot of the momentum the success of 1982 brought to football in New Zealand was largely lost in the mid 1990s, the blame for this doesn’t completely lie at the NZFA’s door. The start of the Rugby World Cup, the Warriors joining the NRL and even the success of the Silver Ferns took the focus off football. Also; Oceania, and NZ/Oz in particular, were royally screwed over by Sepp Blatter reneging on his promise of direct World Cup entry after he had wormed the OFC vote to get re-elected, let’s not forget. The NZFA had made a lot of progress over that time kicking off the National League, instituting development programmes (Like the partnership with US College football and the foundation of the Football Kingz, NZ’s first foray into the Aussie league. All of which resulted in New Zealand achieving it’s highest ever FIFA ranking, of 47, in 2002. Certainly: success, in the shape of World Cup qualification, eluded the NZFA again until 2010. But they hadn’t been totally idle and were always going to struggle to qualify (For the single play-off place) ahead of Australia (Until Oz joined the AFC in 2006).

  2. Flyingkiwi

    30/03/2017 at 09:23

    Yes. It’s true that many of the NZ players were English by birth and it’s also true that many were first-generation migrants and had no family connection to the country that qualified to play for NZ through residency. But this wasn’t a big deal at the time (I, myself, was born in England. Although I do have NZ citizenship from a family connection on my Father’s side). Football, in 1980’s NZ, was a very minor sport that was, almost exclusively, kept alive by ex-pats.

    New Zealand is a small country that punches well above it’s weight in international sport and, one way it does this is by not being TOO concerned as to whether or not the people its sporting bodies choose to represent it have any great family connection to the country. This is not to say that Kiwis don’t ever ask the question. The All Blacks of the late 1980s/90s did garner criticism for having a great many foreign-born Pacific Island player and it certainly works in reverse if a New Zealand born player goes off and plays for somebody else. (For example, Russell Coutts in sailing, Andy Caddick in Cricket and even Viliami Ofahengaue in rugby – a Tongan guy that played for NZ schoolboys on a tour of Australia but then wasn’t allowed back into NZ because he was an overstayer)

    Rugby was (And remains) the number-one sport in the country but the 1982 World Cup really increased the profile of football in NZ. It also increased participation rates amongst kids in schools as Mums encouraged little Johnny to play sports in which he was less likely to get his teeth kicked out and this, over time, has led to the New Zealand team becoming far more “Homegrown”. Now; questions might be asked if a foreign-born “carpetbagger” were to be selected for the All Whites (Although if he was a prodigious talent – like a Messi, for instance – I doubt those questions would be asked very loudly). In 1982; no questions were raised whatsoever (And nobody had any problem welcoming Rory Fallon into the NZ side that qualified for the 2010 World Cup even though he only had a very peripheral birth connection to NZ and had played age-group internationals for England).

    • Yiddo Huayi

      31/03/2017 at 08:34

      “Now; questions might be asked if a foreign-born “carpetbagger” were to be selected for the All Whites ”

      Tommy Smith
      Michael McGlinchey
      Themistoklis Tzimopoulos
      Jai and Dane Ingham

      • Flyingkiwi

        31/03/2017 at 19:02

        Tommy Smith: Grew up in NZ and holds dual nationality.
        Michael McGlinchey: NZ born.
        Jai and Dane Ingham: Both hold NZ nationality (Probably through their parents as that is often how Pacific Islanders get to Australia; by first getting NZ nationality)
        Themistoklis Tzimopoulos: Dunno. Never heard of him. But does have some family connection (According to Wikipedia)

        What I mean by carpetbagger, is players with no connection at all to NZ coming in and playing for the All Whites just so they can play international football. Not banning people who hold NZ passports, as at least 4 of the 5 players you mention do, from plying their trade somewhere else.

        • Yiddo Huayi

          01/04/2017 at 02:50

          Lol, wotevs.
          Wiki doesn’t really provide you with any of the context for all of those players.

          Actually Sumner, Woddin, Elrick, Cole, Malcolmson and all the other UK born 1982 AWs had more of a connection to NZ than any of the 5 current ones.

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