Light at the end of the tunnel or false dawn?
Michael Church in Kunming
Nine years - that's how long it's been since China made their debut appearance at the World Cup finals, when Bora Milutinovic's team took to the field to face Costa Rica in the South Korean city of Gwangju.
It was an achievement that all but marked the end of an era. With football turning professional in China in 1994, qualifying for the finals eight years later was the logical progression for the world's most popular sport in its most populous nation.
Two years later, China reached the final of the Asian Cup - losing in Beijing to defending champions Japan - but for all intents and purposes that solitary appearance at the World Cup brought to an end the first phase of development for football in China. A new generation was expected to build on the success of their forerunners, but it never turned out that way and for much of the past seven years Chinese football has been at a low ebb, embroiled in match-fixing scandals and controversies so damaging there was a real danger of the sport suffering irreversible damage.
While the country has developed at a phenomenal pace economically and socially over the past decade, football appears to have been in a recession.
Tha could be about to change. As the national side yesterday started their attempt to qualify for the World Cup finals in Brazil, the future of Chinese football was buoyed by news of a significant development.
Real estate giant Wanda has pledged 500 million RMB to help improve the sport, including a significant chunk of the funds being earmarked for youth development as well as sponsoring the Chinese Super League and training referees.
The announcement followed on the heels of a new multi-year marketing deal between the Chinese Football Association and World Sport Group, the creation of a Team China brand and a new four-year deal with national broadcaster CCTV.
It all points to a brighter future for Chinese football in the coming years but national team boss Gao Hongbo concedes there is a lot of hard work that still needs to be done. 'It's a good thing for Chinese football development that we get this financial support,' Gao said as the team started their qualifying campaign with a dramatic 7-2 win over Laos in Kunming in the first of a two-legged encounter for a place in the July 30 preliminary draw of the World Cup finals. 'But in my opinion, people or money are not the most important things at the minute. The most important thing is to have good quality pitches.
A shock home defeat loomed yesterday when Laos went 2-0 up but the introduction of striker Yang Xu as a substitute turned the game around as he scored a hat-trick.
Another substitute, midfielder Chen Tao, scored two goals, as did former Schalke midfielder Hao Junmin.
'It is most important that we have a good foundation for our young players, that we have good facilities, good coaching and then good development will follow,' Gao added.
'But we need to set up these foundations first and then, if we are satisfied with the foundations and they are stable, then we can look to start taking bigger steps.'
Uppermost in Gao's thoughts, though, is China's attempt to qualify for Brazil 2014. Since taking over in April 2009, Gao has worked hard to eradicate the negative mentality that had engulfed Chinese football.
Not only did China miss out on a place in both Germany and South Africa, but the national side suffered the embarrassment of failing to reach the final phase of Asia's qualifying tournament.
Despite this, Gao's mood is upbeat. Following friendly wins over Uzbekistan and North Korea in June plus last year's title-winning run at the East Asian Championships, the 45-year-old has seen enough in the past 18 months to make him confident in his current squad.
'For 2006 and 2010, we didn't even qualify for the final 10 in Asia and the fans were obviously disappointed by this,' says Gao. 'Over the last eight years, the national team has improved slowly.
'In 2009, when my coaching team started working with the national team, we were at the lowest level for many years. We were ranked 108th in the world and we were number 13 in Asia, so it was a very difficult time for the Chinese national team. So I'm really happy that, as a Chinese coach, I had the opportunity to lead the team to a higher level.
'It's good that a Chinese coach knows the issues within the team and we can set a plan to solve the problems step by step. Now we are ranked 75th and we are fifth in Asia, so I'm happy that we have been able to make this kind of improvement.
'But although we are improving, we might not be consistent when we play against the stronger teams and that's the next problem we have to solve.'
Whether Gao will be allowed to solve that problem on his own, however, remains to be seen.
The huge injection of cash from Wanda has also led to speculation over his future, with a number of foreign coaches linked to his role in recent weeks as a result and the former national team striker is not averse to receiving some outside assistance.
'Football is not only about motivation, tactics and technique, it is a complicated system and, of course, as a Chinese coach I have my own advantages,' he says.
'But foreign coaches understand the development of the global game and they have a different view of the world. Now for Chinese football, we need a combination of domestic expertise and foreign expertise; that would be the best for Chinese football.'
Ups and downs
China's current Fifa world ranking
- Their highest ranking was 37 in 1998
- Two years ago they were a lowly 108