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Back on the winning trail

By SUN XIAOCHEN in Hangzhou | China Daily | Updated: 2023-09-30 06:57
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Team China defender Jiang Shenglong beats a Qatari player to a header during Wednesday's last-16 match in Hangzhou. Tao Qianglong's third-minute goal was enough to earn China the win. [Photo/Xinhua]

National team's last-16 victory at Asiad cheers fans amid tough times for Chinese soccer

The Chinese men's team's first knockout win in 25 years at the Asiad delivered long-suffering soccer fans at home a rare moment of joy.

With a crowd of over 38,000 roaring the Under-23 national team on to victory, the energy inside Huanglong Sports Center Stadium on Wednesday night was reminiscent of the day in October 2001 when Team China qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first, and so far, only time in history.

No one, however, was getting carried away enough to think the Under-23s' 1-0 last-16 victory over Qatar at the Asian Games was enough to repair Chinese soccer's tarnished image.

It was at least Team China's first knockout-stage victory at the tournament since 1998, securing a first quarterfinal appearance at the Asiad since the 2006 edition, when group winners directly advanced to the last eight.

And even with the standard of play at the Asiad nowhere near the level of a World Cup qualifier, a narrow win was enough to send the Hangzhou crowd into a frenzy, with Chinese fans so desperate for something to cheer after years of underachievement by the men's team.

"Chinese fans deserve this moment. A big thanks to the full stadium today. I appreciated the Chinese fans' unwavering support," head coach Dejan Djurdjevic said after the win.

Next up for the host is a huge challenge against continental powerhouse South Korea on Sunday.

The national team's progress in Hangzhou should be kept in perspective. After the one-year pandemic-enforced delay, most of the elite contenders in Asia sent an under-22 squad to the Games, looking to ease these younger players into international action in time for next year's Paris Olympic Games and the 2024 Under-23 Asian Cup in Qatar.

With the game against the Koreans falling on China's National Day holiday, Djurdjevic is well aware that another victory would be a massive lift for the team and the morale of China's soccer community in general.

"Korea is a very strong team. I respect them talking at the news conference before the match, but when we go on the field our goal is to beat them," said the Serbian, who guided Team China to a 1-0 friendly victory over the Koreans' Asian Games squad in June.

Several of the Korean players ply their trade in Europe, with Lee Kang-in on the books of French giant Paris Saint-Germain and Jeong Woo-yeong with Bundesliga side Stuttgart. Their presence in Hangzhou is indicative of how seriously the Koreans are taking the tournament, with a gold medal guaranteeing their players exemption from otherwise mandatory military service.

Team China captain Tan Long says his team is feeling confident after inflicting some heavy defeats on group-stage opponents.

"We knew that we owed the fans a good campaign for a long time and that has given us extra motivation to do well at this tournament," said Tan, a veteran forward and one of China's three overage players allowed on each team at the Asiad.

"The key for us will be to keep it tight at the back and try to make the most out of our counterattacks from there," said Tan, a starter for Chinese Super League club Changchun Yatai.

With Team China's first-choice centerback Jiang Shenglong redcarded in the final minute against Qatar for an altercation with an opponent, midfielder Gao Tianyi suspended for accumulating two yellow cards, and defender Zhu Chenjie sidelined with an injury, Djurdjevic's men will need the crowd to raise the decibel levels more than ever to pull off an upset.

"I am sure the next game will be a full house," said Djurdjevic.

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