Former Real Madrid and Spain boss Jose Antonio Camacho took over China’s beleaguered national soccer team yesterday, as the underachieving Asian nation sets its sights on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The 56-year-old replaces Gao Hongbo and will be tasked with turning round the fortunes of the national side at a time of crisis for the Chinese top league, which has been dogged by corruption and sporadic bouts of hooliganism.
Despite a huge and passionate fanbase, China’s record on the international stage is disappointing — the national team has qualified for just one World Cup, in 2002.
They failed to make it to South Africa last year after a poor qualifying campaign and earlier this year crashed out of the Asian Cup in Qatar at the group stage.
Camacho, who led Spain to the quarter-finals of Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, signed a three-year contract at a ceremony in Beijing yesterday, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) said.
The Spaniard, fired by La Liga side Osasuna in February as they flirted with relegation, said he was looking forward to the challenge.
Camacho will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Bora Milutinovic, the Serb coach who earned folk hero status in the world’s most populous nation for leading them to the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Wei Di, vice head of the CFA, said Camacho was tasked with “quickly raising the level of the team, and actively carrying out the national team’s preparation work for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.”
Things have started to look up recently, with China unbeaten in five friendly matches that included wins against Honduras, Uzbekistan and North Korea.
On Wednesday last week, they beat Jamaica 1-0 at home, but with less than three weeks to go before the first 2014 qualifier, against Singapore, the CFA decided to ditch the Gao for the experienced Camacho.
Details of Camacho’s wages have not been announced, but Chinese media have reported he will earn 3 million euros (US$4.3 million) a year.
Aside from the national team’s underachievement on the pitch, Chinese soccer is also riddled with corruption, right up to the highest echelons of the sport.
The government launched a wide-ranging investigation into soccer in 2006 that over several years unearthed graft at almost every level of the game.
CFA officials allegedly routinely fixed matches at national, league and even international level by buying off teams or referees. State media last year said bribes determined who won Chinese championships and who was relegated.
However, the government has started to clean up the sport, and several high-level CFA figures have been arrested, along with scores of players, referees and coaches over gambling, match-fixing and a host of other misdemeanors.
Chinese soccer has also been hit by several bouts of violence both on and off the pitch, involving fans, players and coaches.
In one high-profile case, several people were injured in August last year when fans of Henan Province’s Jianye soccer club battled riot police in Zhengzhou following their team’s defeat.