History of failure hurts China's veteran soccer players
Mainland soccer has plunged into the "absurd", failing to learn any lessons from the one and only appearance at the World Cup in 2002, veteran players have lamented.
The 2014 World Cup will be another universal showpiece celebrated by fans around the world, but for those in China it is a bitter reminder of another failure by a country with arguably the largest fan base.
China's dreams of going to Brazil were dashed in 2011 when they failed to make it through qualifying, despite spending big on Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho.
And their fortunes have not improved in the past few years, culminating in an embarrassing 5-1 home defeat by Thailand in June last year which sent their world ranking to all-time low of 109.
The China Football Federation has hired a procession of seven different head coaches, from five countries - the latest being Frenchman Alain Perrin, whose appointment was announced in February.
"Today we change our coach, tomorrow officials, the day after that our playing style, and after that, the players … I don't see any planning," retired Dalian forward Hao Haidong said of the frequent changes in the national team. "It couldn't possibly get more absurd."
China qualified for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan thanks to the genius of hired gun and head coach Bora Milutinovic, but lost all three matches in the group stages and returned home without even a goal.
"Our capability was at that level, it was no one's fault," said Hao, who still holds the national team record for scoring the most goals, with 41. "But it was no accident either that we made it to the World Cup finals," he said
"But so far I don't see any lessons we've drawn from our experience at the 2002 World Cup."
Li Weifeng, who played centre back for China at that World Cup, said he wondered why it had all gone wrong and pointed a finger at the players.
"Just look at the national team that made to the 2002 World Cup, and the team today - they aren't nearly in the same league.
"Too few young players nowadays can take on the responsibilities compared to those in 2002," Li said. "I often wonder, what has happened in the past 12 years?"
Li said their performance at the World Cup was not surprising. "It was related to our narrow vision back then. At the time we didn't have much access to the various soccer styles used throughout the world.
"But we really need to thank Bora Milutinovic, the only one of us who had previous World Cup experience. He led [our team] in surpassing many barriers, but it was not enough."
Li said education was vital for soccer players. Li quit school early to devote himself to training and like thousands of youngsters he joined one of the many state-run sports schools across the country dedicated to physical training but providing little general education. "It was like a road of no return, you either fight through it to become a professional or end up with a mediocre career," Li said of children who dropped out of schools to pursue soccer training at an early age.
"But even if they do succeed, players with limited education cannot possibly digest what foreign coaches teach."
Fan Zhiyi, the Asian footballer of the year in 2001, said young players were the most crucial asset for China's development.
"Obviously, talent is our pressing problem. And talented players, after all, are teenagers," said the former Shanghai star. "We have the talent, but it is the administrative level's responsibility not to waste them."
Jin Zhiyang, a former coach of Beijing Guoan and a member of the national team's coaching line-up in 2002, said: "It was our very first time [in qualifying for the World Cup], and the first time we had a taste of it. So everything [we experienced] was an accomplishment for us, including the defeats. Even though we failed to earn a single point, or a goal, that first-hand experience will be remembered forever."
Jin said the healthy development of school sports was the vital source of burgeoning talent.
"Sports should ultimately return to education," Jin said, pointing out that all giants of sport got their start at school.
"China is bound to adopt the approach, sooner or later," said Jin, who has put his words into practice. He now serves as the head coach of Beijing Institute of Technology's soccer team.
Based on exclusive interviews given to RTHK