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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.