The 1984 Asian Cup was one of the finest moments in the history of the Chinese national team. With China’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup hanging by a thread, WEF reflects on a happier time for the Chinese national team
Continental football has a long history in Asia. The AFC Asian Cup began in 1956, four years earlier than UEFA’s European Championships. However, China did not participate in the first six tournaments in protest at Taiwan’s membership of FIFA and the AFC. China has played in all twelve tournaments since 1976 though and has made it to the final twice. In 2004 the generation who competed at the 2002 World Cup lost to Japan in the final on home soil. In doing so, they emulated the feat of the 1984 team.
Changing of the guard
Narrowly missing out on qualifying for the 1982 World Cup marked the end of an era for Chinese football. That Chinese side had largely broken up by the time thoughts turned to the Asian Cup a few years later. Former manager Su Yongshun had emigrated to Canada, the talismanic Rong Zhixing had retired, as had their fellow Cantonese Cai Jinbiao and Chen Xirong. Vastly experienced goalkeeper Li Fusheng had also called time on his career whilst Shen Xiangfu (future Beijing, Changchun and Shenhua manager) was out of favour. Three of the team’s players from Liaoning – Chi Shangbin, Huang Xiangdong and Zang Cailing – had also left the international scene.
China’s new manager Zeng Xuelin still had three experienced players to build his team around: Liaoning centre back Lin Lefeng, Tianjin winger Zuo Shusheng and diminutive Cantonese forward Gu Guangming. Zeng’s first properly competitive action with them would be qualifying for the 1984 Asian Cup. Whilst the tournament itself would be held in Singapore, China had home advantage in qualifying. All of the games in their group were played at Guangzhou’s historic venues Yuexiushan and the Provincial People’s Stadium. China were drawn against Afghanistan, Jordan, Hong Kong and Qatar with all the games to be played in September 1984.
China steamrollered Afghanistan 6-0 in their opening game but Zeng thought improvements could be made. The 4-3-3 line-up for their match against Jordan three days later featured a positional change and would be the base for the remainder of their Asian Cup campaign.
Zeng Xuelin was raised in Meizhou in Guangdong and picked another Meizhou native as his starting goalkeeper, Yang Ning. There were three players from Liaoning in the back four – Zhu Bo and centre backs Jia Xiuquan and Lin Lefeng – as well as Tianjin’s Lü Hongxiang. Another Tianjin player and the national team captain Zuo Shusheng was on the left of midfield, with Beijing’s Li Hui in the centre and Wuhan’s Lin Qiang on the right. Ahead of them was Shandong born but Liaoning raised youngster Li Huayun, and the two Cantonese Gu Guangming and Zhao Dayu. At just 5 foot 4 inches Zhao was the smallest member of the team and this, combined with his tenacious attitude, earned him the nickname aijiaohu or dwarf tiger.
With the exception of the three survivors from the ’82 qualifying campaign this was a relatively inexperienced team but they swatted aside Jordan 6-0 at Yuexiushan, with home favourites Gu and Zhao amongst the goals. Two days later the same team beat Hong Kong 2-0 with Zhao getting both goals. China and Qatar were tied on points going into the final game but Zhao’s 88th minute winner meant China topped the group. China had won four games in nine days whilst scoring 15 goals and conceding none. An impressive record. The ‘dwarf tiger’ Zhao scored six of these goals to claim the top scorer’s trophy.
1984 Asian Cup – an inauspicious beginning
Three west Asian sides – reigning champions Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia – and South Korea were the pre-tournament favourites. Coach Zeng refused to be drawn on his team’s chances though. He simply stated that “if we play well there is always the chance to do well.”
The same eleven that had done so well in qualifying were reunited for China’s opening game. However, two second half goals for Iran consigned China to defeat. The Straits Times was not impressed with a match “filled with tactical boredom” nor the “flat-footed dragon that was China.” Chinese keeper Yang was singled out for special treatment as he “showed all his inexperience to concede two saveable goals.” In amongst all the ‘humorous’ references to the Great Wall in the match report, the Chinese were also castigated for their “horrific shooting.”
Finding their feet
Zeng reacted by bringing in Beijing forward Yang Chaohui for the second game and was rewarded with a 2-0 win over hosts Singapore. Centre back Jia opened the scoring with a shot from distance before the dwarf tiger Zhao scored from closer range. The Straits Times reported that China missed an opportunity “to win by a landslide margin against a clueless Singapore” by going easy in the second half. Harking back to China’s ‘friendship first’ sporting policy, the paper felt China were being “diplomatic” in not continuing to attack and in one case deliberately spurning a chance.
China then beat India 3-0 in a game notable for the skill shown by centre back Lin in grabbing the first goal. This goal, and China’s others from the tournament, can be seen in this video – ignore the music and focus on the quality of some of the goals. Beijing keeper Lu Jianren – “acrobatic, agile and confident” – displaced Guangdong’s Yang Ning in goal for this game and would continue in the role for the World Cup qualifiers the following year.
Whilst Yang was out, another player from Meizhou was brought in for the final game as Chi Minghua started in defence. China strolled to a 5-0 win over the UAE to top their group on goal difference. They had made it into the semi-finals.
“At last, the giant panda has awoken” – The Straits Times
Kuwait were the fancied side going into the semi-final having played in the 1980 Olympics and ’82 World Cup. However, The Straits Times correspondent thought it would be a close game because “the Chinese have gone from strength to strength” after a poor start to the tournament.
It was a close game but it was the Chinese who came out on top. Sub Li Huayun pounced on a defensive error in extra time to score the only goal of the game. China had done it. They were through to their first ever competitive final. Predictably, another ‘pun’ – this time on the great leap forward – greeted what was China’s greatest ever footballing achievement at the time. Zeng’s strategy was praised and there was a recognition that China’s “determination was undying and their industry was exemplary.” However, The Straits Times felt that “there was no doubt that Kuwait were the better side” and so were unlucky to be knocked out.
Due to the compressed timetable of the Asian Cup, the final was China’s sixth game in thirteen days. Amazingly, the starting eleven from the initial game against Iran played in the majority of the other fixtures, with just Li Huayun and Lü Hongxiang being rotated in and out of the side for Yang Chaohui and Chi Minghua respectively.
China faced Saudi Arabia in the final. The two sides had met in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, with China winning both games. However, it was a very different Chinese side that lined-up in Singapore’s National Stadium on 16th December to play in the Asian Cup final. Whilst the three survivors – Lin Lefeng, Zuo Shusheng and Gu Guangming – had happy memories of playing the Saudis, they had unhappy memories of playing in Singapore as this was where New Zealand has ended their World Cup dream. Winning the Asian Cup would help to soothe this pain.
Captain Zuo said before the game that China had not expected to reach the final; their aim had been to “learn more about football. But we are now confident of our chances.” Despite Zuo himself, Gu and Li Huayun nursing injuries, coach Zeng was “confident of putting up a good show.”
However, it was Saudi Arabia who took an early lead thanks to a brilliant volley from Shaye Al-Nafisah. Majed Abdullah’s solo goal immediately after the break extended the Saudi’s advantage. China couldn’t get back into the match and lost 2-0, meaning they were forced to settle for the runners-up spot. The press reaction was unanimous – the Saudi’s deserved their win over an “unimaginative” Chinese side who showed their immaturity by “indulging in dribbling, thinking that individual flair was the answer to a well organised defence.”
China did not leave Singapore empty handed though. Centre back Jia was named as the tournament’s MVP and his three goals won him a share of the golden boot. The whole team were given the fair play award but this was not without controversy. Iran had seemingly been favourites but, as the award was sponsored by cognac producer Remy Martin, Iran had told organisers they wouldn’t accept it. To avoid awkward scenes at the closing ceremony, the AFC therefore handed the award to China. In response to this denial of public acknowledgement, Iran retaliated by boycotting the whole ceremony.
Whilst Iran were unhappy, the Chinese, especially coach Zeng, were understandably disappointed. Although it would have been no consolation to know this at the time, China’s second place finish is still their joint best ever result in the Asian Cup. However, this achievement was not to stand unblemished for long.
Heroes to villains
Heroes at the end of 1984, the Chinese national team were villains just five months later. On an infamous May night in Beijing they lost 2-1 to Hong Kong and crashed out of World Cup qualifying in the first round. This inevitably stains the memory of the 1984 Asian Cup achievement but, as time goes on, the memory of the second place finish becomes even more impressive. China will have to win the next tournament in the UAE in 2019 to better it.
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