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What they don’t tell you about China and the World Cup

Everybody knows China have only ever qualified for one World Cup finals. Many also know that China failed to get a point or score a single goal in their solitary appearance. The pre-2002 qualifying campaigns reveal a much more interesting story about China and the World Cup though.

Qualification but no points

Yes, China finished bottom of their group in South Korea and Japan 2002 but that isn’t surprising. They were the lowest ranked team going into the tournament. In hindsight, they also arguably had the hardest group. China were unlucky enough to face eventual winners Brazil and Turkey. They may not be everybody’s idea of an international powerhouse, but Turkey finished third that year. It’s harder to put a positive spin on China’s 2-0 loss to Cost Rica though.

Politics and sport

They say politics and sport don’t mix. Try telling that to Chinese footballers. The team of 2018 have a tattoo ban to deal with, whilst previous generations had their international careers impacted by a politically motivated withdrawal from FIFA. The withdrawal in the late 1950s over the ‘Taiwan question’ prevented China from even attempting to qualify for five World Cups. To put this in perspective, China were successful in their 6th attempt to qualify following their readmission to FIFA.

China did have one attempt to qualify for the World Cup before withdrawing from FIFA. Recognising that they needed help to do this, 25 young players were sent to train in Hungary in 1954. Hungary were probably the world’s best team at the time but politics was still at work here. After being turned down by the USSR, where else could communist China send its most promising footballers? Or rather, its most promising footballers with acceptable political backgrounds – future national team coach Su Yongshun was among those who missed out.

When the young players returned to China in late 1955 they effectively became the national side. Politics again intervened to prevent them from playing in the 1956 Olympics though. A year later, China played their first ever World Cup qualifier but lost 2-0 in Indonesia. China won the return leg in Beijing but lost a play-off in neutral Burma and were out. They’d fallen at the first hurdle in their first attempt to qualify.

Two failures

Two of China’s next five attempts to qualify fall squarely into the ‘China is bad at football’ narrative. The most often cited failure is the attempt to qualify for Mexico’86.

China only needed to avoid losing at home in their final first round group game to progress to the second stage of qualifying. Their opponents were the then British colony Hong Kong. Having finished runners up in the ’84 Asian Cup, China were clear favourites but Hong Kong upset the odds with a 2-1 win. China were out. Humiliatingly defeated by their ‘little brother.’ The shock result led to ugly scenes in the stadium and riots outside as over 100 people were arrested.

Less politically embarrassing but no less painful was China’s failure to qualify for USA’94. China came third in the 1992 Asian Cup so would’ve expected to at least make it into the second round of World Cup qualifying. They didn’t. A 1-0 loss to minnows Yemen – who had never even qualified for an Asian Cup – derailed China’s campaign almost before it had begun. Under their first ever foreign manager – Klaus Schlappner, a German with a modest coaching CV – the Chinese won all but one of their remaining games to keep themselves in contention, but the damage had already been done. China were out and Schlappner soon would be too.

Two near misses

Two of China’s other attempts to qualify definitely do not fit the trend of a hopeless footballing country. Failures they may have been, but these were glorious rather than abject failures. In these two attempts, China missed out by just 90 minutes and then 3 minutes.

The first World Cup China tried to qualify for following their readmission to FIFA was Spain’82. They almost made it. Led by the talismanic Cantonese forward Rong Zhixing, China got through the opening phase (see main image) and were then within 90 minutes of qualifying on three separate occasions. First, an away win against Kuwait would’ve sealed China’s place outright but they lost 1-0. Second, anything other than a five goal winning margin for New Zealand away at Saudia Arabia would’ve put China through on goal difference, but the All Whites won 5-0. Third, a winner takes all play-off against New Zealand held in Singapore. China had taken just one point from two games against New Zealand in the group stage and the All Whites came out on top again in Singapore with a 2-1 win. China had come so close but just missed out.

They came even closer to reaching Italia’90. However, China twice snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as they failed to qualify. First, they blew a 1-0 lead in the final ‘black three minutes’ to lose 2-1 against the UAE in their opening game. China recovered from this early setback and went into their final game against Qatar knowing that if they won and other results went their way, they would qualify. Other scores did go their way and Ma Lin’s second half goal put qualification within sight. However, two goals from Qatar in the final three minutes denied China their first ever place at a World Cup.

Not quite good enough

China breezed through the first qualifying stage for France 1998. The faced stiffer competition in the second group stage though and missed out on a play-off spot by just one point. No particularly embarrassing defeats here, China just weren’t good enough to claim one of the three automatic qualifying spots.

Before1998 there were just two slots for Asian – sometimes including Oceanian – teams at the World Cup. [Still, this was an improvement on 1958 when Asian and Africa were given one place between them but still ended up being represented by a European team. Wales] This left very little margin for error in China’s qualifying campaigns. The Asian qualification process didn’t give an opportunity for ‘lucky losers’ or the best second placed sides to have another chance as in some other Confederations. While there are many other reasons for their failure, the number of spots available to Asia and the qualification process certainly did China no favours.

Women hold up half the sky

Many articles on China’s footballing failings mention its 1.4 billion population, conveniently ignoring that not all of them are men. In fact, China’s female footballers have had much more success than their male counterparts. China hosted the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 and their women have qualified for all but one of the subsequent editions, finishing runners up in 1999. Although not as dominant now, their achievements cannot be overlooked.

Not so different after all

Near misses, embarrassing failures, and years where they just weren’t good enough. Put like this, China’s attempts to qualify for the World Cup in the ’80s and ’90s don’t sound so dissimilar to those of other countries. It certainly sounds much more interesting than the bald fact that China have only ever qualified for one World Cup.

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.

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