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Dismal result leads to Seoul search

After wasting Thailand chance, China needs to make a point in South Korea

By SUN XIAOCHEN in Shenyang | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-06-08 08:21
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Team China players trudge off the field after scraping a draw with Thailand in a 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on Thursday. A win would have guaranteed a place in the final stage of Asian qualifiers, but China now needs to secure at least a point in Tuesday's match against South Korea in Seoul. XINHUA

It's not entirely beyond hope, but it still seems pretty hopeless.

Team China's narrow escape from a home defeat to Thailand has granted its World Cup qualifying campaign seemingly nothing more than a stay of execution, leaving fans frustrated by the beleaguered side's bleak future prospects.

Being cheered on by over 46,000 home fans at the Shenyang Olympic Sports Center Stadium, the Chinese men's soccer team failed to capitalize on the overwhelming home support, as it narrowly rescued a 1-1 draw against Thailand in a critical Asian qualifier for the 2026 World Cup on Thursday.

The one-point finish from its final home game of the second qualifying stage has left Team China reeling, with its back now firmly up against the wall as it heads to Seoul to face Group C leader South Korea in its final fixture on Tuesday. While a win is unlikely, Team China could cement its runner-up place and advance into the final phase of qualifiers with a draw.

Facing an opponent that it hasn't beaten in the past seven years, and on its home pitch, Team China's Seoul mission seems way more challenging than third-placed Thailand's job of routing already eliminated Singapore in a home fixture on the same day. That would put it level with China on points, and could potentially see it edge out the floundering Dragons with a better goal difference.

Mathematically, Team China remains in pole position in its race against Thailand, yet its lopsided losing record against South Korea, which has beaten China four times out of the pair's last five encounters, including China's 3-0 home loss in the November first-leg qualifier, doesn't bode well.

The dejected silence shrouding the Shenyang stadium at the final whistle on Thursday night spoke volumes — it was a golden opportunity squandered.

And perhaps a whole generation of players wasted.

"I really want to apologize to all the fans. We let them down, and let ourselves down," said captain and goalkeeper Wang Dalei, who had revealed that it was his last World Cup qualifying campaign.

"It wasn't anybody's fault alone, not the missed spot-kick, not the defensive frailties. It was just that, collectively, we didn't deliver our best," said the 35-year-old who made his Team China debut in 2012.

Team China's head coach Branko Ivankovic, who just took over from Serbian caretaker Aleksandar Jankovic in February, refused to sum it up as a failure, giving credit to an aggressive Thai squad that played with more attacking flair than China had prepared for.

"Thailand is a strong opponent playing with its own characteristics," Ivankovic said through an interpreter at the post-match news conference.

"We did our preparation, and all of our players did their best on the field. They just need to learn how to perform well under huge pressure like today.

"The game is not over yet. In the next match against South Korea, we will give our all, using our last bit of strength to fight our way into the next stage," said the 70-year-old Croatian, who led Chinese Super League club Shandong Taishan to a domestic title in 2010.

The final Asian Zone qualifying round will feature 18 teams, the top two from each of the nine groups in the second stage, vying for eight direct berths at the extended, 48-team World Cup finals being jointly held by Mexico, the United States and Canada in 2026.

Widening gap

Even if China manages to squeeze into the 18-strong final phase by snatching a result in Seoul, its overall lack of competitiveness against continental heavyweights, due to years of stagnant talent development and declining quality in the domestic game, will prove that even an expanded World Cup is out of its reach.

The team's chaotic defense, disconnected midfield and toothless attack against Thailand, a team it had beaten in an away qualifier in November, have underlined the drop in talent and quality of Chinese soccer, which has been plagued by corruption scandals in recent years.

Forget about the short-lived, cash-propelled continental club titles a decade ago, and maybe forget about the slim hopes of World Cup qualifying, it's time to wake up to the harsh, yet undeniable, reality that Chinese men's soccer simply doesn't have what it takes to be even competitive in Asia.

"We are just falling further behind the best in Asia and the gap seems to be getting wider," said Sun Jihai, a former Manchester City player and a formidable member of China's only World Cup squad in 2002, during live TV commentary on Thursday.

"Maybe we've been obsessed with results at the elite level for too long. It's time to get down to what really matters: Working on youth training and league development with long-term plans and consistent effort," said Sun, who, in recent years, has launched a youth training program in his native Liaoning province, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Yunnan province.

It wasn't all doom and gloom though. Offering succor to Chinese fans were the performances of some of its reserve players during Thursday's draw.

Adding a silver lining to what will otherwise be remembered as a totally disappointing night, Behram Abduweli, a young forward hailing from the Uygur ethnic group in Xinjiang, whipped the crowd into a brief frenzy by scoring an equalizer with 11 minutes left on the clock. The goal nullified the early first-half goal from Thailand's Supachai Chaided.

Scoring the goal that keeps Team China's hopes alive — on his international debut — has propelled the 21-year-old forward into the trending topics on Chinese social media. Yet, Behram wasn't quite as pleased with his performance.

"I feel like I didn't do well in many aspects. I was kind of nervous at the beginning, and I wish I could've scored more goals for the team," said a dejected Behram after the match.

With the team's leading scorer Wu Lei, and starting defensive midfielder Li Yuanyi, set to return from card suspensions in the next game, Team China's mixture of freshly-blooded youth and experienced stalwarts might just help boost its chances against South Korea, Ivankovic suggested.

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