Uphill task: China begin a long and difficult road to the 2018 Fifa World Cup with a trip to South Korea
China have made their only appearance at the World Cup when their neighbours co-hosted the tournament in 2002 and have won just one of 30 meetings with South Korea
The international break means that there is no Chinese Super League, but having snuck through their World Cup qualification group, China begins the next stage on the road to Russia.
Gao Hongbo has had time to work with his squad after most of them met up after the last round of league fixtures over a week ago, with only the Shandong Luneng and Shanghai SIPG players in action in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals last week.
Interestingly, despite both quarter-finals being played against K-League teams, they won’t provide much in the way of preparation for the game against South Korea on Thursday.
Only one domestic-based player has been selected amongst their 21-man squad and he does not play for either Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors or FC Seoul, the top two in the table and the teams who hold advantage at the halfway stage in both quarter-finals.
Watch: highlights of Shanghai SIPG vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Five of the Koreans play in the Super League, with the rest playing in Japan or in European leagues, ample evidence of the strength of South Korean football.
By contrast China have selected just one overseas based player in their initial 25-man squad for these qualifiers, 19-year-old Zhang Yuning of Vitesse Arnhem – while Gao has also called up Sun Ke of Tianjin Quanjian in the Chinese second tier.
The odds are against China. They were not expected to make this stage of qualification, and their history with the South Koreans favours the Taeguk Warriors – in 30 meetings China have just one win, most recently losing in the East Asian Football Federation East Asian Cup last year.
South Korea are mainstays of the World Cup finals, while China made their only appearance when their neighbours co-hosted the tournament in 2002.
Watch: Zhang Yuning becomes first Chinese player to score in Dutch Eredivisie
However, China’s unexpected presence at this stage throws off the shackles of expectation. They really have nothing to lose and with up to 30,000 Chinese fans expected in the Seoul World Cup Stadium on Thursday, the atmosphere might even favour the underdogs.
If China can come away with anything from their trip then it gives them chance to build against Iran in Shenyang next Tuesday and set the team on the way to a top-two finish that would guarantee a spot in Russia.
It’s no secret that the World Cup is at the heart of the country’s football reform plans and we will have a better idea how much closer they are to a second appearance in a little over a week.
What is for sure – despite a declaration from SIPG coach Sven Goran Eriksson that China could be world champions within a decade – is that making the World Cup, let alone lifting it is a long way off.
Watch: highlights of FC Seoul vs Shandong Luneng
Even if the team had the same kind of depth as their opponents on Tuesday, with players in top foreign leagues, they could still do with a superstar to call upon.
This is not a problem unique to China. Eventual winners Portugal would not have made it to this summer’s European Championships without Cristiano Ronaldo dragging them through the play-offs. Average and below average international teams tend to need a superstar – and in the case of Argentina, even Lionel Messi has not been enough in their last three finals.
Rowan Simons, author of Bamboo Goalposts and chairman of Beijing-based grassroots outfit China ClubFootball argues that China won’t have their own Messi or Ronaldo anytime soon.
“It is virtually impossible for a Chinese superstar to emerge in mainland China. First, over 99% of kids in China do not play football,” he said.
Watch: highlights of China vs Qatar
“From the less than 1% who even play the game, statistically 0% receive high quality coaching at the earliest ages.”
That’s changing, in both terms of participation and coach education but there’s no shortcut for either. Simons goes further, though, suggesting that even with both in place the odds are small – an exceptional youngster would need to be spotted very early and quickly end up in a European academy for a chance to become world class.
Aside from the need for a truly world class player to drag the team forward, it has long been said that Chinese football needs a Yao Ming figure in order for the sport to really take hold among the general public.
Watch: highlights of China vs South Korea (2015 East Asian Football Federation East Asian Cup)
“Forget Yao Ming, a Chinese superstar footballer would be the biggest star ever in world sport,” says Simons.
“China will go crazy and the pressure will be bigger than that faced by any athlete in history. The earning potential too.”
It’s not glamorous but it will work in the long run. In the meantime, China should be bidding to host the World Cup if they really want to make sure of their second appearance.
China 2026 has a ring to it – and with home advantage, who knows, maybe Sven might be right after all?