A strong China needed for Asian Cup
Anger would have been familiar, understandable, and perhaps even tolerable, but China’s recent 5-1 defeat to a young Thailand team (at home) provoked a reaction that went way past fury. The country, the fans and the media were full of scorn, contempt and derision. It became so bad some people were actually laughing.
Anger would have been familiar, understandable, and perhaps even tolerable, but China-s recent 5-1 defeat to a young Thailand team (at home) provoked a reaction that went way past fury. The country, the fans and the media were full of scorn, contempt and derision. It became so bad some people were actually laughing.
Local universities were challenging the national team to games, television commentators were thanking the War Elephants for the lesson, and the Chinese FA asked players to write down the reasons why they thought they had lost in such a comprehensive fashion.
That was June, but in the weeks since the atmosphere around the team has changed. Three solid performances at the East Asian Cup against Japan, hosts South Korea and Australia, not only returned five points (almost enough to take the title), but more importantly a sense of pride.
As the players left Seoul Olympic Stadium on the final day, they were smiling and laughing with the same journalists who - just weeks before - had been declaring the death of the Chinese football team. It turns out those reports were greatly exaggerated, and that's good news for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
It's no longer the responsibility of Jose Antonio Camacho to guide the team through qualification. The former Real Madrid and Spain boss was appointed in August, 2011, amid much fanfare, but left less than two years later without making much of an impact. While his last game against Thailand was as bad as the scoreline suggests, it was simply the final straw that broke Camacho-s back.
There had been concerns for some time. Not qualifying for World Cups (China did not even reach the final stage of qualification for 2014) is an accepted, albeit unwanted, norm. But under the Spaniard results and - increasingly- performances raised doubts as to whether China would make it to Australia for the continental showpiece to be held in less than 18 months.
With two of the six games down in a tough group, China have three points. A narrow defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opening game was followed by a last-minute home win over Iraq. That was the last meaningful victory under Camacho. Next up are back-to-back games against Indonesia in November. Six points against Australia-s closest Asian neighbour - an achievable target rather than a foregone conclusion - and the 2015 AFC Asian Cup will be visible on the horizon.
Fu Bo is now in charge of steering the ship in that direction. The softly-spoken caretaker took control for the East Asian Cup and set about restoring stability. In the opener, his team fought back from 3-1 down to Asian champions Japan to draw 3-3. Next came a battling goalless draw against an energetic and aggressive Korean host, before the tournament was rounded off nicely with a 4-3 win over Australia that was not quite as close as the scoreline suggests.
It's true China took the competition a little more seriously than the others and didn-t have any European-based stars to call upon. But still there was much to encourage. Compared to the last days of Camacho, the team was cohesive, well-organised and hard-working. In short, it looked like a team.
A settled unit gives individuals the chance to shine. Yu Dabao was perhaps the pick of the bunch in attack. The Dalian Aerbin star-s movement across the backline caused problems for all opponents. Jiangsu Sainty wideman Sun Ke staked his claim for a more regular starting spot with two goals, Gao Lin was his usual hard-working self in attack and goalkeeper Zeng Cheng was in great form though he sometimes had to be with the central defence the one let-down in South Korea.
It helped that Fu was able to call upon a sizeable contingent of Guangzhou Evergrande players. No less than six Reds appeared in the opening game against Japan. It is debatable whether the champion-s gathering of talent, both domestic and foreign, is good for the Chinese Super League, but it is certainly handy for the national team.
And it may not stop there. The Chinese FA wants Guangzhou coach Marcello Lippi to take over the national team. The Italian landed in southern China in May, 2012, and won the title six months later. The 2013 championship is already in the bag but what he and his employers really want is the Asian Champions League. With the quarter-final stage about to kick-off, Guangzhou are favourites to take the crown.
Even if that doesn-t happen, there will still be a clamour for Lippi to take the China hotseat. Guangzhou will not stand in his way if he wants the job. The chain-smoking European (the first word he learnt in the local lingo was ‘ashtray-) knows Chinese football pretty well, knows the majority of the national team very well, and has a resume that reads extremely well thanks partly to the 2006 World Cup triumph with Italy.
The World Cup can wait. Now it's all about the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. A few weeks ago, the idea that China could not only qualify for Australia, but make a serious impression, would have been greeted with snorts of laughter. Not any more. China is moving in the right direction.