Finally, something to Sing about

Singapore's heroics help Ivankovic's men sneak into third round of Asian World Cup qualifiers

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-13 09:18
Share - WeChat
Chinese fans look nervously on during a 2026 World Cup Asian qualifier between China and South Korea at the Seoul World Cup Stadium on Tuesday. China lost 1-0, but still advanced to the next round thanks to Singapore holding Thailand to a 3-1 win. Xinhua

Lady Luck's benevolent smile shone brightly on Team China, whose odds-defying survival in the fight for World Cup qualification has given long-suffering fans a way overdue reason to celebrate — though not yet enough to save the game's declining domestic profile.

Defeated, yet still breathing — the Chinese men's soccer team finished a dramatic night on Tuesday as a lucky loser, despite a 1-0 loss to South Korea, as it squeezed into the next round of qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to help from its close neighbor Singapore.

About an hour after its defeat to Korea in Seoul, Team China and its beleaguered fans were left with mixed feelings after a different group match ended in their favor. Singapore prevented Thailand from scoring a crucial fourth goal in a 3-1 loss in Bangkok, helping China to clinch a second-place finish in Group C thanks to its thin head-to-head edge over the War Elephants.

Failing to convert its relentless attack into more goals against the bottom-placed Singapore, Thailand tied with China in ranking points, goal difference and goals scored after the final whistle, falling just short due to its loss to China in their first meeting of the qualifying phase.

Making it to the 18-team third qualifying stage, though not under its own steam, Team China has kept its World Cup hopes alive for at least 10 more matches, which will be played in the next 12 months.

The next phase kicks off on Sept 5 with 18 teams, drawn into three groups, vying for six direct qualification berths, which will be awarded to each group's top-two finishers. The third- and fourth-placed teams will then battle it out in a fourth phase for the remaining two spots at the expanded 48-team World Cup in 2026.

Ranked 13th in Asia and 88th worldwide, Team China faces incredible odds to claim a direct berth against the continental heavyweights that will dominate the next phase. Regardless of the draw results, which will be decided on June 27, for many, all this progression represents is a stay of execution.

Its presence on the highest continental stage, though, matters for the country's ambitious plan of rejuvenating the men's sport after a seemingly perpetual string of disappointments in qualifying for, and performances at, major tournaments. It's also a step further on the path to redeeming the image of the game in the face of recent high-profile corruption scandals.

After all, Chinese fans deserve some solace having witnessed the side fall short in five World Cup qualifying campaigns in a row.

"I know the Chinese men's team has been struggling in recent years on the international stage, and it was a challenge for me to take it over," Team China's head coach Branko Ivankovic said through an interpreter at the post-match news conference on Tuesday.

"But, I do believe that Team China has its own strength and some quality players, and that it can be built into a stronger force and play better games.

"I believe we are a better team than how we played, and that we could rank within the top-10 in Asia.

"To reach our next goal, and achieve a better result that matches our level (in the next phase), we need to select our players wisely, have more training and warm-ups," said the 70-year-old Croatian, who has led Team China to one win, two draws and a loss since being appointed in February.

1 2 3 Next   >>|
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349