Asian Cup 2019: China face litmus test against Son Heung-min’s South Korea and new boys Philippines, Kyrgyzstan
- Bad results could renew calls to disband men’s team on grounds they are a national embarrassment
- Lack of any foresight from Chinese Football Association makes tournament a poisoned chalice
When China come up against South Korea on January 16 at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, it will be something of a litmus test for the nation. Where exactly does China stand in its much heralded football programme?
The country may have its heart set on a return to the World Cup but it should not be forgotten that it has never won the continental title.
Australia, one of the newer entrants into the AFC, won the last edition on home soil in 2015. Japan are the record winners with four, a figure that South Korea could match this time out.
China have gone close enough over the years. Since making their bow in 1976 they have been beaten finalists on four occasions, winning third place on two of them.
Twice they have finished as runners-up – in 1984 they lost to Saudi Arabia in Singapore; in 2004 they lost to Japan at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, a game that is better remembered for the riot that ensued afterwards.
Chinese fans have shown they are quick to temper but nowadays they are even quicker to dismay. A couple of bad results at this tournament would renew calls to disband the men’s team on the grounds that they are a national embarrassment.
Sadly for the players, the first two games are against tournament debutants Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. China are 76 in the Fifa rankings, while Kyrgyzstan are 91 and Sven Goran Eriksson’s Azkals are 116.
Discounting the vast disparity in terms of population and resources, there is enough to be seriously embarrassed by, in pure football terms, if they fail to beat those two teams.
That’s compounded by the fact the Philippines have not picked their best player, Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, while Kyrgyzstan’s most capped player, goalkeeper Pavel Matyash, does not have a club.
The Philippines and China call solely on domestic based players but largely because they have little choice.
China have no alternative but for Zhang Yuning at ADO Den Haag and a number of other youngsters even further behind the striker in their career development.
The Chinese Super League may rank as one of the best in East Asia – they will have four teams in the next AFC Champions League – but it would be damning for the best 23 Chinese players from it to lose to a squad playing in the Kyrgyz league but for a handful of overseas players, mostly in lower leagues.
South Korea is the obvious anomaly in Group C and losing to them would be easier to stomach. They have players from the top Asian leagues, including the Chinese Super League, and best European leagues.
Plus, in Son Heung-min they have Asia’s only genuine superstar. The 26-year-old will lead a squad that contains just 12 players older than him.
China’s squad is the oldest tournament and it would be even older but for injuries to 31-year-old goalkeeper Zeng Cheng and full-back Li Xuepeng, 30.
This would not be so damning were it not for the fact China implemented a youth policy that forced clubs to play under-23s and also funnelled cash to youth development.
The result is one player under the age of 23 in the squad for the biggest tournament of the year, and Wei Shihao’s formative football was played in Europe.
It could have been argued that with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon it would be better to take more promising youngsters over 100-plus capped 38-year-old Zheng Zhi and 32-year-old Gao Lin. However, that would have needed foresight and that is something lacking at the Chinese Football Association.
In Marcello Lippi they have an ageing manager leading an ageing squad. He has intimated that this will be his final act as China boss, with his contract expiring at the end of the tournament.
Would it not have been better to get the next manager in before this tournament? Or does the memory of Lippi’s sign-off with Italy, winning the World Cup in 2006 before walking away, still linger?
Then again, with a new chairman expected at the CFA perhaps no one could make that call. The winds of change sweep through that place more often that at a Scorpions-themed KTV.
Next year sees the Chinese Super League introduce a salary cap among other money-saving measures. These rules combined with the recent announcement that Japan’s Vissel Kobe would play three Major League Soccer teams on their US preseason tour, becoming the first Japanese team to do so, shows that China risks lagging further behind at club level too.
Financially, it’s telling that Chinese companies have not found a way to elbow their way in. In contrast to the soft power push at the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia last summer, there are no Chinese sponsors of the tournament nor any supporting partners.
Global support comes from Continental tyres and Coca-Cola with the 12 other backers coming from Japan (Toyota, Family Mart, Nikon) and the UAE (Emirates, BeIn Sports).
For China, the Asian Cup might be a poisoned chalice.