They came, they saw, they crumbled ... a gander through China's World Cup woe

Team 33's Raf Diallo looks at their 2002 experience on The World Is A Ball

BY Raf Diallo 16:00 Wednesday 10 February 2016, 16:00 10 Feb 2016

Picture by: Tony Marshall / EMPICS Sport

While we were disagreeing over the events of Saipan and The Guardian had to write a piece explaining what a metatarsal was after David Beckham's pre-World Cup 2002 injury,  Chinese football was celebrating its most momentous achievement.

The nation of over a billion people had reached the men's FIFA World Cup for the first time in their history that summer.

Fittingly it would be the first ever tournament held in Asia, with a short journey towards South Korea or Japan depending on the draw and in some ways that suited them in qualifying.

With two of Asia's giants automatically through to a 32-team tournament that they always qualify for in the last two decades, two and a half places (the half consistuted a playoff against a European team which ultimately turned out to be Ireland) were available to the other sides in the Asian Confederation.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, at the time, were semi-regular qualifiers before Australia became part of AFC after switching from Oceania. Saudi Arabia would qualify automatically for the finals and end up being grouped with Ireland, losing 3-0 and setting the scene for Damien Duff's unforgettable goal celebration.

China, who had mostly experienced footballing failure in their years in and out of FIFA's stable, were grouped in the other section of Asia's final qualifying stage. 

On this week's Team 33, Newstalk's Adrian Collins joins us to talk about China's seemingly sudden transfer bonanza along with the contribution of Chinese football expert Chris Atkins. You can also read Adrian's interview with Chris here.

China would breeze through the first stage of qualifiers with six wins from six to reach that final group stage which contained teams like United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Oman and Qatar, a country - lest we forget - which will get to host the World Cup in 2022 before China despite never qualifying for a tournament in their history.

At least Chine got their once on merit.

They won six of their eight fixtures to reach Korea & Japan but of even more importance was a decision made two years earlier.

In 2000, the Chinese FA made the decision to turn to Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic, a legend in the world of international management.

The now 71-year-old had gone to every previous World Cup prior to 2002, in charge of one relative minnow after another.

Bora Milutinovic praying for a good draw for China in 2002 ... not that one really existed (Picture by: Steve Mitchell / EMPICS Sport)

In 1986, he led host nation Mexico the quarter-finals, four years later he guided Costa Rica to the second round, USA 94 saw him take the unfancied hosts into the knockout stage and the 1998 World Cup saw him take charge of a talented Nigeria side all the way to the last-16.

Getting China to the World Cup showed his pedigree but once they got there, even a manager capable of taking international minnows to a particular level could do little with the Chinese squad.

That being said, the 23 that went to Korea & Japan to take on eventual champions Brazil, Costa Rica and surprise bronze medalists Turkey did have a couple of European-based players in ex-Manchester City full-back Sun Jihai, Eintracht Frankfurt striker Yang Chen who scored just over 20 Bundesliga goals in four years, and then-veteran Dundee defender Fan Zhiyi.

But aside from that trio, the rest were all home-based and proved totally out of their depth at the World Cup.

Their easiest game on paper was their opener against Costa Rica in Gwangju but the Central American side featuring ex-Manchester City and Derby County cult hero Paulo Wanchope and the exciting Ronaldo Gomez proved too strong in a 2-0 result, despite China holding out for an hour:

That's as good as it got for Milutinovic's side and they would have been heartened to note that their next chance of victory was a country called Brazil with a smaller population but four more World Cup trophies in their cabinet.

My memory of that game was the Roberto Carlos free-kick which the players in the Chinese wall were wise to duck down from:

And the final coup de grace was applied by a Turkey side, which along with Senegal and co-hosts South Korea, stunned the world.

With only pride to play for, China succumbed by a 3-0 scoreline to finish bottom of the group with zero goals scored and nine conceded. 

They haven't been back on the global stage since, yet it still remains the high point on a global level for the Chinese national side and it's something they want to change between the current president Xi Jinping's love for the game and ambitions to host the World Cup in the future.

While the first part of the strategy is seeing clubs pay top dollar (or Yuan to be more accurate) for the likes of Jackson Martinez and Alex Teixeira, Chinese football expert Chris Atkins made one pertinent point to our own Adrian Collins regarding what China really need to do:

"The future for Chinese football has to be in developing their own talent They will continue to bring in bigger names, this is only the start of that trend [...] but the way to compete with those top leagues is to have the local talent at a much higher level.

"Even if you just throw money at it, football is a far more complicated beast than that".

It most certainly is but as the USA has shown via the MLS and its international side, patience can pay off.

You can read more from Raf's The World Is A Ball series every Wednesday on To find past articles, head to the Team 33 show page.


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