More than a game as China and Qatar meet in ‘sym­bolic’ clash

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

An Asian zone World Cup qual­i­fier be­tween the bot­tom two sides in Group A, who have won just one game in eight be­tween them, may not seem a par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy match.

But when China face Qatar in Kun­ming today, it will also be a clash be­tween ar­guably the most am­bi­tious and cer­tainly in their re­gion big­gest spend­ing na­tions who, in the long-term, could both play a cen­tral role in shap­ing the sport’s fu­ture.

In the short-term both could deal an al­most fatal blow to each other’s al­ready very slim chances of reach­ing Rus­sia 2018. “It would be easy sim­ply to dis­miss the China Qatar game as a dead rub­ber or as a match be­tween weaker na­tions on the pe­riph­ery of world foot­ball,” said Pro­fes­sor Si­mon Chad­wick, a Bri­tish-based Asian foot­ball ex­pert. “How­ever, these are two as­pir­ing foot­ball na­tions, with ma­jor foot­ball am­bi­tions. “Both na­tions still hold out hope of mak­ing Rus­sia 2018 and fail­ure to do so would be an em­bar­rass­ment and a set­back in their de­sire to be con­sid­ered as be­ing among the world’s lead­ing foot­ball na­tions.

“The game there­fore has huge sym­bolic mean­ing.” It is the World Cup where both coun­tries wish to make a mark on the global game. Both have in­vested heav­ily to fuel their am­bi­tions. China, which aims to be a foot­balling su­per­power by 2050, has spent an es­ti­mated $1 bil­lion de­vel­op­ing its do­mes­tic game, says Chad­wick.

It har­bours hopes of host­ing its own World Cup and, one day, win­ning foot­ball’s great­est prize. Qatar is in the mid­dle of trans­form­ing it­self by splurg­ing $200 bil­lion-plus to host the 2022 tour­na­ment. The sta­di­ums alone for that World Cup will cost some $10 bil­lion.

Both coun­tries’ am­bi­tion also rep­re­sents a chal­lenge to the es­tab­lished world foot­ball or­der, says China-based Cameron Wil­son, founder of the Wild East Foot­ball web­site. “I think it is clear the bal­ance of power is shift­ing away from Europe, al­beit slowly, and it’s no co­in­ci­dence that money is a big part of that-nei­ther Chi­nese nor Qatari foot­ball lacks se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial back­ing,”Wil­son told AFP.

But with am­bi­tion comes pres­sure, and nei­ther na­tion is re­spond­ing too well at the mo­ment. China have one point from their four qual­i­fy­ing games. Their last home matcha 1-0 de­feat by Syria in Xi’an-saw an­gry fans protest in the streets.

World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar are only slightly bet­ter off. They have clawed three points from four matches, fol­low­ing a 1-0 vic­tory in Doha last month against Syria.

But only the top two teams from the group qual­ify au­to­mat­i­cally for Rus­sia. Iran head the group with 10 points and Uzbek­istan are se­cond with nine. The third­placed team will have a play-off chance to get to Rus­sia, the po­si­tion cur­rently held by South Korea with seven points.

THE PRICE OF FAIL­URE

Em­pha­sis­ing how des­per­ate China and Qatar are to qual­ify for the 2018 tour­na­ment, both have sacked their coaches dur­ing the cur­rent round of qual­i­fy­ing.

No­tably, China have ap­pointed World Cup win­ning-coach Mar­cello Lippi on a re­puted $20 mil­lion-a-year con­tract to re­vive hope in their al­most mori­bund World Cup cam­paign.

Today’s game will be his first big test in charge of “Team Dragon”.

Qatar turned back to pop­u­lar for­mer coach Jorge Fos­sati af­ter los­ing their first two matches in this round of qual­i­fy­ing, de­spite storm­ing through the last stage. Lippi said he and the Chi­nese na­tion are hop­ing for a mir­a­cle. Fos­sati is in­sis­tent that what­ever hap­pens in Kun­ming will not be de­ci­sive. “We are very op­ti­mistic about the re­sult of the game in China, but it is not a de­fin­i­tive game,” he said be­fore his team flew out.

Last week China played a be­hind closed doors friendly in prepa­ra­tion for today’s match. In con­trast, Qatar beat Rus­sia 2-1 in Doha in a match broad­cast live on tele­vi­sion. “We wanted to help Mar­cello if he wanted to watch the game,” joked Fos­sati. De­feat today and the costs could be high.

For Qatar, it could mean the end of any hope of qual­i­fy­ing for their first World Cup be­fore they host in 2022, and show­ing a scep­ti­cal foot­balling world they de­serve to host the tour­na­ment. China could pay a price off the pitch, says Chad­wick, where con­tin­ued foot­ball fail­ure could un­leash the “po­ten­tial for po­lit­i­cal and so­cio-cul­tural fall­out at home”. — AFP

BRUSSELS: Bel­gium’s Thomas Me­u­nier scores against Es­to­nia dur­ing the World Cup Group H qual­i­fy­ing soc­cer­match be­tween Bel­gium and Es­to­nia, at the King Bau­douin Sta­dium in Brussels on Sun­day. — AP

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