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Daily Drip

China’s Asian Cup Exit to Iran Prompts Soul Searching

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In a result that shocked pretty much no one, China’s men’s football team crashed out of the Asian Cup last night at the quarter-final stage to a vastly superior Iran side. Some woeful defending and stodgy attack play led to coach Marcello Lippi resigning immediately and stating, “I thank my players for their efforts, but not for what they did tonight.”

China’s exit was widely expected, as was that of their Italian manager. But that’s not stopped the country’s long-suffering fans from starting an inquest into why China repeatedly fails to find a men’s squad capable of competing at the top level from a population of 1.4 billion, as smaller nations consistently outplay them.

The top-rated comment under a Weibo post of the “highlights” from People’s Daily reads, “Thank you Lippi for confirming that the problem with Chinese football is not the manager.”

Lippi led Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, and though he was never likely to repeat that feat with China’s squad, it’s hard not to sympathise with his frustration at how little progress has seemingly been made under his tenure. His job hasn’t been made any easier by the Chinese football authorities and decisions like this one:

“The Death of Chinese Football”: Young Players Will Miss Rest of Season for Military Training

As if robbing their best young players of vital experience in favor of giving them military training wasn’t bizarre enough, China then sent a squad to the Asian Cup in UAE with the oldest average age in the tournament. That kind of decision-making, plus a set up that until yesterday employed Marcello Lippi as head coach and Guus Hiddink as under-21 manager despite their different playing styles, are among the reasons Chinese football fans are once again feeling fed up.

“Those who agree with disbanding the national football team and instead spending the money on national defence so that our soldiers can live more comfortably, please raise your hand,” says another highly-rated comment on Weibo. At time of writing it’d been “liked” over 15,000 times.

Weibo user Gaoyang de Luoyang wrote,

“What’s the problem? It’s worth pondering! Don’t always take pride in the fact that the Chinese Super League ranks first in Asia. It’s all money! The key to Chinese football lies in the youth training and the recognition of football from childhood. Although football is now being promoted in schools, there are other aspects that need attention. When we were young, we played football in the street. Now? How many children take part in football, even for exercise? Very seldom!”

It’s been two years since China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping unveiled a plan to turn the country into a footballing superpower by 2050. By 2020, the initiative aims to have 50 million people playing football. That plan was never going to change anything overnight, but without a more thorough look at all levels of the game and an honest assessment of what might be holding China back from success, we can expect plenty more limp exits from future tournaments.

But before the country’s football fans get too depressed, it’s well worth remembering that China’s women’s team were the first to qualify for this summer’s World Cup in France. Roll on France 2019 — the women’s team are likely to be the country’s only realistic chance of World Cup glory for quite some time.

Cover photo: AFC

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.