U-19 team hoping to restore national pride after senior defeats
On Saturday, China’s men’s under-19 national soccer team will begin its campaign in the Asian Football Confederation’s U-19 Championship, fighting for a place in next year’s FIFA U-20World Cup.
The team will attempt to restore some pride for Chinese soccer fans, distraught at the national senior team’s losses to Syria last week and Uzbekistan on Tuesday, leaving the nation’s hopes of competing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup slimmer than ever. Gao Hongbo, who assumed the role of team coach in February, resigned after the defeat by Uzbekistan.
The senior team only squeezed into the final qualification stage at the last minute, when it beat Qatar to become the fourth-best runner-up from eight groups. Only four of the best-placed runners-up were eligible to advance to the next phase of the competition.
After the senior team’s 3-2 loss away to South-Korea and a 0-0 home draw with Iran, two top-tier opponents in the Asian group, fans had heightened expectations because the players displayed good morale. However, the defeats to Syria and Uzbekistan led to strong criticism of Gao’s strategies and tactics, even though some fans argued that the Chinese Football Association should shoulder greater responsibility than the coach.
For many fans however, the rankings of China’s leading clubs are less depressing. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC has won two AFC Champions League trophies, first in 2013 and again last year. Moreover, Super League attendances ranked fifth worldwide and No 1 in Asia, with average match attendances of more than 22,580, according to statistics published by the website mlssoccer.
In the medium-to-longterm plan for the development of soccer, released in April, China proposed raising the number of pitches along with the number of elementary and middle school students who play regularly. Under the plan, the country hopes to see 30 million students playing soccer frequently by 2020. In a more recent plan, the CFA issued 10 measures, designed to come into force next year, to promote the development of teenage soccer. They include youth training centers, cooperation with education departments and raising the level of coaching, according to reports in Titan Sports, China’s biggest sports newspaper.
“Although the number 30 million may be debatable, it shows great progress that we haven’t set a target for team performances, but on the number of participants,” said Zhang Lu, a former professional player turned commentator, in an interview with China News Service TV in April.
Former national team coach Gao Hongbo looks on during a FIFA World Cup Asian Zone qualifier against Syria in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, last week, which China lost 1-0.