Tame surrender spells danger for China's soccer future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 1997, 12:00am

CHINA'S dire performance against Qatar has all but killed off hopes and dreams of a World Cup trip to France next summer and may also have done some extremely serious damage to the future of soccer in the country.

Only a miracle - and they don't come around too often - can save China but, quite frankly, they scarcely deserve saving if the best they can come up with when the chips are down is the pallid performance produced in Dalian.

It is usually best to keep critical comments to a minimum if games are watched not in the flesh but on television. The vagaries of trendy directors, the encompassing of the action into a tight camera frame and the inability to see the whole, wide picture can distort the view of a game.

But basically China were so dismal that seeing it live in Dalian would merely have made it virtually unbearable. It would have been a long, long journey home.

The impulse to turn off the wretched affair firmly after China conceded a third goal that should not have happened with an Under-15 defence was very strong. There is, of course, a touch of the masochist about most football fans so we endured to the bitter end.

It is not that China really looked to be a good bet to reach France but so much depends on the way a team leaves a competition. It can slink out or depart with heads held high. No prizes for guessing which way China have made their likely exit.

They succumbed tamely against Iran, not helped by goalkeeping blunders, yet the group leaders have been proved vulnerable since. The chances for China have been there along the route but they have not been taken.

If there is a fundamental flaw in China's national team it may well be a lack of self-belief. They have played really well on several occasions - the second half against Kuwait being one outstanding example.

But too often they have been feeble when they should have been strong, uncertain when direction and determination were needed. It cannot be that they do not have enough good players but as a team they simply fail to function on too many occasions as a cohesive unit.

I am sorely tempted to lay some of the blame on the coaching set-up but it may possibly be that regional divisions play a part. It is a vast country and the overall mix of players from various provinces may not gel.

China have employed a German coach in the past and there was English input into the present qualifying tournament. None seems to have had much effect.

As against this, of course, the National League is very strong and extremely popular. The major games are played in front of full houses and there is tremendous enthusiasm.

The National League is sensibly based on cities so that the team(s) will enjoy fanatical local support - and that is what has really helped make the league such a great success.

Could it be that the very format that makes the National League so successful works against the national team? Although there are some good foreign players in the Chinese league, it is the home-grown talent - and most of it grown where the team for which they play is based - that excites and largely determines success and failure.

The common purpose and aim at league level with players largely from the same region pulling together may be, to an extent, lacking at national team level.

Certainly, the national team does not lack support and the decision to play games in Dalian, a hot-bed of soccer interest, could not be faulted.

The atmosphere on Friday seemed electric and the bitter disappointment when China so feebly capitulated almost tangible. One can only imagine what it must have been like for a billion tuned in across the nation when a shaky 1-0 lead was all too easily transformed into a numbing 2-3 defeat.

Unfortunately, a near-certain exit from the World Cup at this second qualifying stage could have a detrimental effect on China. The country's football bosses have been known in the past to go into a sulk when things have gone wrong and simply disbanded or discarded, for a time, the national team.

Hopefully, that will not happen with this latest setback because what is needed is some strength to be drawn from the defeats they have suffered. I would still suggest that top-level foreign coaching expertise is required, if only to really lay out a plan for the future that gives China a chance to take a major stride forward.

The sport has come a long way in a short time in relation to league football but, sadly, that success has not been emulated at international level. It is particularly sad for the people of the country as their love affair with football seems very real.

Sadly, they were the real losers in Dalian.