Does the Chinese National Football Team Really Have a Future?

The Chinese Men’s national football team ended their journey after a disappointing 0-3 loss against Iran in the 2019 Asian Cup. Even though Iran is one of the best teams in Asia, the Chinese were not happy with the game results.

Conceding three goals in the game, the three defenders in the Chinese national team were believed to be the ones responsible for the team not making into the final four in the tournament. Feng Xiaoting, one of the defenders playing for China, was sent to the reserve team in his football club Guangzhou Evergrande because of the defeat in the Asian Cup quarter-final.

Lippi, coach of the Chinese national football team, resigned (source: caixingglobal)

The loss marked the end of Marcello Lippi’s coaching era. The former World Cup champion team coach completed his contract with the Chinese Football Association. Since becoming the head coach for Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012, Lippi has been coaching in China for seven years. As the team failed to qualify for the semi-final, the Chinese national football team may see several key players retiring from the team. The 38-year-old team captain Zheng Zhi will not be likely to return to the team for future competitions such as the 2022 World Cup Qualification tournament.

The Chinese national football team seems to be suffering from a talent drain due to the decreasing number of players registered to play football. Furthermore, the current members on the squad were all playing for domestic football clubs and none of them made it to the European leagues except the striker Wu Lei who recently signed a new contract with the Spanish football club RCD Espanyol.

Five games into the 2019 Asian Cup tournament, China retained a 60 percent winning score with three wins and two losses. In the group stage games, China defeated Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines in its first two games and secured a spot in the knock-out stage. During its final game against South Korea, China fell two goals short and suffered a 0-2 loss. Next, China came from behind and eliminated Thailand with a 2-1 victory before facing Iran in the quarter-final.

Examining the five games played by the Chinese team, it is evident that the current squad is not on the same level as the leading teams in Asia: Iran managed to finish its 2018 World Cup journey with 4 points in group B, where it faced two world-class football teams, Spain and Portugal. The Iranians chased down Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in its final game in the group stage. As for South Korea, the Asian tiger defeated the former World Cup champion in with a 2-0 victory in the 2018 World Cup tournament.

While looking at the the leading football teams in Asia, all of them benefited from having a number of players actively playing in overseas tournaments, especially in the competitive European football leagues. The 26-year-old Korean striker Son Heung-min has showed consistency in his performances with the Tottenham Hotspurs in the English Premier League. But going abroad does not necessarily mean success. Players who are already established in European leagues, such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, did not even make it to the Japanese squad to play in the 2019 Asian Cup tournament.

The 38-year-old Chinese football player Zheng Zhi is doing his best to lift the national team, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough. China is falling behind other Asian teams, but the future of the Chinese football teams is far more concerning. With a domestic football league that is dominated by foreign players and high incomes, a lack of incentives for players to play in overseas leagues, and a decline of the country’s registered football players, China’s future in football does not seem that promising.

Different from most of the leading teams around the world, China seems to have a different approach in selecting its players. The Chinese Football Association has the final say when it comes to the rules and operations of its domestic football league. While all current players on the Chinese national team are professional football players, their professional careers are constantly interrupted by tasks such as Olympic game preparations and other forms of administrative policies.

The Chinese Football Association forcefully created a training team to prepare for future international competitions. The team was required to attend non-football related tasks such as patriotic education and military training, neither of which has anything to do with football. The Chinese Football Association further established an under-23 policy by forcing all club teams in the Chinese Super League to have players under the age of 23 or face penalties such as losing the game by default.

These policies are rather experimental projects that have very little evidence to support their effectiveness. It is rooted the Chinese Football Association’s inflated confidence; instead of trusting a professional league to know what’s best for their players, Chinese officials choose to implement administrative policies that interfere with the training. They view football in the same way as they view sports such as badminton and table tennis: By allocating more resources, they will see results that lead to their global dominance.

These experiments have not yielded the desired outcome thus far. Chinese football teams are not meeting the set targets in international competitions. It is not only affecting the senior national teams, but also various junior teams in Asia and world tournaments. The mixed status of a state-administered institution and professional football club training camps simply put too much burden on the players. From junior players who are still learning to senior players in top-level club teams, nobody can bypass the intense pressure from the football association officials.

Chinese player Wu Lei joined the Spanish League (source: Fox sports Asia)

Perhaps Wu Lei will blossom in the Spanish league, and the former SIPG striker could become a prominent Chinese football figure. However, the larger issue within the Chinese football community remains unsolved. The administrative interference has trapped Chinese football into its current dilemma. And unfortunately, the struggle has no end in sight.

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