Three minutes. That’s how close China were to qualifying for the 1990 World Cup. Two goals from Qatar in the final black three minutes of the final qualifying game denied China their first ever World Cup appearance.
China’s qualifying campaign for Italia’90 began in 1983. In Mexico. Gao Fengwen’s U20s were the first Chinese side to qualify for any international tournament since China’s readmission to FIFA when they appeared at the ’83 World Youth Championships in Mexico. A core group of players from this side graduated to the full national team and represented China in their run to the final of the ’84 Asian Cup, the abortive attempt to qualify for Mexico’86, the ’88 Olympics and the ’88 Asian Cup. By the time of the latter two tournaments, Gao Fengwen was managing the national team. He’d go onto use six of his former U20 side in the qualifying campaign for Italia’90.
Gao’s preferred line-up for the first round qualifying games had Shanghainese Zhang Huikang in goal. The back four was made up of two Dalian born Bayi players and two from Guangdong. Right back Zhu Bo and centre back Jia Xiuquan came from Dalian, with the Cantonese Guo Yijun at centre back and ‘penalty king’ Mai Chao at left back (although he sometimes played in midfield or as a striker). Liaoning’s Gao Sheng and Tang Yaodong were in midfield, joined by Tianjin’s Duan Ju and the third Cantonese on the team Xie Yuxin. Ahead of them were any two from the Shanghainese Liu Haiguang, Shaanxi player Wang Baoshan, and Liaoning legend Ma Lin.
First round of qualifying
In the first round of qualifying, China were up against Bangladesh Iran, and Thailand. They had to top their group to go through to the second round. China won their first three games so were well placed going into a decisive double header with Iran which had been delayed due to public mourning over Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. The Chinese played a hastily arranged warm-up friendly with Russian club Vladivostok but Xie Yuxin dislocated a shoulder. His replacement for the Iran games was Zhang Xiaowen. Remarkably, Zhang, Xie and centre back Guo were all from what was then Xingning County and is now part of Meizhou.
Zhang Xiaowen made an immediate impact, scoring the second as China beat Iran 2-0 in Shenyang. A week later they lost 3-2 in front of 90,000 in Iran but second half goals from ‘penalty king’ Mai Chao and Ma Lin would prove crucial. Iran were on top of the group but China knew a win of any size against Thailand in their final game would send them through. Given what happened against Hong Kong four years earlier, the pressure was on China. They handled it. Goals from Jia Xiuquan and Ma Lin inside five minutes ensured China’s progression.
Final round of qualifying
The top six teams in Asia flew to Singapore in October’89. They would play each other once with the top two qualifying for the World Cup. Singapore newspaper The Straits Times made South Korea, who played at Mexio’86, the clear favourites, with Carlos Alberto Parreira’s Saudi Arabia their pick for second. Behind them, in no particular order, were “technically backward” China, “inconsistent” Qatar, “rebuilding” North Korea and “developing” UAE.
Saudi Arabia were first up for China. Manager Gao brought in Liaoning keeper Fu Yubin, part of his old U20 side, to start in goal due to Zhang’s back injury. Whilst the defence and midfield were similar to the first round, the Cantonese Wu Qunli started upfront alongside Liu Haiguang. China gained a measure of revenge for their defeat to the Saudis in the ’84 Asian Cup final, also held in Singapore, with a 2-1 win as penalty king Mai Chao scored twice.
Black three minutes (1)
The same line-up played four days later against the Mario Zagallo coached UAE. Favourites China took the lead through Tang Yaodong’s solo goal with an hour gone. Going into the closing stages, Manager Gao tried to shut up shop by bringing on Liaoning defender Dong Liqiang for midfielder Xie Yuxin. It was a decision he would quickly regret.
Dong was part of the all-conquering Liaoning side so Gao would’ve expected him to be a safe substitute. He can’t have expected that Dong would make two mistakes in the short time he was on the pitch, nor that each would lead to a goal. That’s exactly what happened though. Whilst keeper Fu and defender Guo share some of the blame, Dong Liqiang’s brief appearance is among the most infamous in Chinese football history. It sparked what would come to be dubbed the ‘black three minutes’ as China surrendered a winning position and lost 2-1. UAE coach Zagallo put this down to luck. “China played well” he said “but we had more luck.”
The two Koreas
For almost the first time in their whole qualifying campaign, China were in trouble. Things got worse when they lost 1-0 to South Korea. China played for a draw but The Straits Times said they “did not deserve to be on the same pitch” as the South Koreans. The loss meant that China could “bid goodbye” to their World Cup dream. Gao Fengwen had other ideas though.
He made three changes for the game against North Korea. Centre back Jia returned from suspension after missing the South Korea game, keeper Fu Yubin was dropped for fit again Zhang Huikang, and Ma Lin partnered Liu Haiguang upfront.
A win for the North Koreans would’ve put them within touching distance of qualifying for Italia’90. That was still possible at half time with the score 0-0. Gao then made a match changing double substitution, bringing on Xie Yuxin and Wang Baoshan. “Impish midfielder” Xie scored an “excellent” winner. Making a pun about twenty five years ahead of its time, The Straits Times headlined their article “Yuxin’s goal keeps China dream alive.”
Win and hope
By the final game, South Korea had already qualified and Saudi Arabia were out of contention. The other four teams all had at least a mathematical chance of going through though. China were third in the standings, behind the UAE and already qualified South Korea, so had to beat Qatar and hope that South Korea beat the UAE. Depending on the margin of victory, a Chinese win and a South Korea-UAE draw would also put China through on goal difference or goals scored.
Both scenarios needed the already qualified South Koreans to put in a competitive performance against the UAE. However, the Chinese were worried that the South Koreans – with whom they did not have diplomatic relations – would take a meaningless loss to guarantee the UAE ‘s qualification ahead of China. The AFC were also worried about this and reportedly met the South Koreans to voice their concerns.
For arguably China’s most important game since 1982, Gao Fengwen went with Zhang Huikang in goal behind a back four of Zhu Bo, Jia Xiuquan, Guo Yijun and Duan Ju. Zhang Xiaowen, Tang Yaodong, Xie Yuxin and Mai Chao were ahead of them in midfield, with Ma Lin and Liu Haiguang up front.
Black three minutes (2)
In muddy conditions, China opened strongly and created “many more chances” than Qatar. The score was still 0-0 at halftime though. Luckily for China, the South Korea-UAE game was also even. One goal from China would put them in pole position for the World Cup.
With just over an hour gone, Gao brought on Cantonese forward Wu Qunli for Liu Haiguang. The switch paid off. Wu’s scrapping in the box set up Ma Lin for an easy finish. 1-0 and a place at Italia’90 was in sight.
China were hanging on heading into the final few minutes but the pressure, tension and perhaps sheer exhaustion of playing five games in 17 days was catching up with them. Surely they could rally and see out the final three minutes though? They couldn’t. The Qataris pressed forward and took advantage of some lax defending to score twice and win 2-1. China’s World Cup dream was over, shattered in the space of another black three minutes.
Longer term impact
Until this time, China could reasonably claim to be one of, if not the, East Asian team to beat. Their embarrassing loss to Hong Kong in 1985 did not make them a bad team overnight and their AFC Asian Cup record was more consistent than South Korea’s. However, South Korea’s second successive World Cup qualification now gave them the title of best in East Asia and arguably all of Asia. Indeed, their 1-0 win over China, following on from their 2-1 extra time win at the ’88 Asian Cup, helped to form the Chinese inferiority complex against them. It would be 2017 before China beat South Korea in a competitive game.
Despite the black three minutes, the CFA kept faith with Gao but he resigned a year later after losing at home to Thailand. The rest of Chinese football was also changing as domestic clubs began to attract sponsorship and some players were allowed to move overseas for the first time. China would have a professional league by the time of the next World Cup. In keeping with these changes, China’s attempt to qualify for it would be led by a foreigner.
All quotes from The Straits Times
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