It might be the most populous country in the world and one with the most potential, but China seems incapable of putting together a soccer team that can make the World Cup.
Once again it will be watching from the sidelines when South Africa 2010 kicks off next month, with little to suggest China will be challenging for one of Asia’s four qualifying places in Brazil in four years’ time.
While China has excelled in a growing range of Olympic sports, the product of years of single-minded planning, the national soccer team continues to struggle.
Its bid to make this year’s World Cup was a disaster, tamely exiting the competition at the third Asian qualifying stage for the second successive time.
China has always been tipped as the hot contenders on the continental stage, but the fact remains that they have never won an Asian title and have only represented the continent at the World Cup once, in 2002, when they went out in the first round without scoring a goal under charismatic coach Bora Milutinovic.
Rather than laying the foundations for a better future, Chinese soccer has gone backwards in the past year.
Match-fixing, crooked referees, gambling and poor performances by the national team have made the sport the laughing stock of increasingly indifferent fans and a matter of mounting state concern.
It culminated in the head of the China Football Association, Nan Yong, and vice head, Yang Yimin, being sacked for corruption and taken into police custody.
“Our football level is low. Fraud, gambling, crooked referees and other odious influences keep cropping up,” Chinese Sports Minister Liu Peng said at the time.
Gao Hongbo was appointed coach after China failed to make the World Cup and the team flopped at the Beijing Olympics in front of their own fans.
He is the seventh man at the helm since 2000 and FIFA president Sepp Blatter has advised China to stop hiring and firing if they want to succeed.
“Where teams are successful at the youth level, you also have good international teams,” Blatter said after their Olympic failure. “China should start again with the young players and not artificially hire a national coach and change it every year. There must be some continuity, there must be a plan, there must be short and long-term planning.”
Team coaches will travel to South Africa for this year’s tournament to learn from the world’s strongest squads. In the meantime, fans will be glued to their televisions. China Central Television is broadcasting all 64 matches live, with the station reaching up to 97 percent of China’s population.