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Managing Expectations, Will China Qualify for 2018 World Cup?
   2016-04-13 14:50:10    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Liu Ranran

Windsor John, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) General Secretary, displays a draw for China during the official draw for the final round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup football Asian qualifiers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 12, 2016. [Photo: Xinhua/Chong Voon Chung]

By Stuart Wiggin

Following the release of a plan on Monday by the National Reform and Development Commission (NRDC) that saw China pledge to transform the national Chinese football team into a footballing superpower by 2050, Chinese fans of the sport now know what the next step is in what will surely be a long and arduous task of achieving world-class status; following the draw for the third round of qualifying within the Asian zone for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The grandiose scheme outlined in a 14 page document also aims to produce 50 million players (of an unspecified standard) by 2020, create 1 pitch for every 10,000 people by 2030, and see the men's and women's national teams be among Asia's best over the course of the next 15 years.

While these are indeed sensible goals attached to a sensible time frame, the drawing of the AFC qualifying third round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup will of course cause many to look again to the short term, and ultimately whether China can make it to the Finals. If China were to qualify for only their second World Cup Finals ever, weary supporters of the national side may finally believe that plans such as those published earlier this week may actually start coming to fruition. However, the release of the plan by the NRDC is just as likely to increase expectations amongst Chinese fans as football is once again thrust into the spotlight under President Xi Jinping's watch. But how likely is qualification?

China has been drawn alongside Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Syria and Qatar in Group A of the third round qualifiers. Elsewhere, Group B consists of Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand. Though China dodged a bullet by avoiding the strong sides of Japan and Australia, Iran and South Korea pose considerable tests for them in Group A. But there still remains some cause for optimism among Chinese fans, buoyed by the fact that the top two teams of each group will qualify automatically. Essentially, China crept into the third round of qualifying after being the fourth best runner up in the second round group stages. They trailed Qatar in their group, despite gaining a 2-0 victory over the team, which ultimately helped China clinch qualification. This victory, alongside 6-0 and 12-0 thrashings of lowly Bhutan will have shored up confidence within the side as they get set to take a step up in terms of competition.

There are two clear favorites within Group A, namely Iran, the highest ranked team in the AFC, and South Korea. Iran handily topped their AFC qualifying second round group with 6 wins and 2 draws against teams of a much lesser quality. Similarly, South Korea topped their group, though they managed to achieve a perfect record throughout with 8 wins against arguably inferior sides. To say that these teams have not been tested yet might be an understatement and China will be hoping that South Korea's international inconsistency pays a visit over the course of 12 months between September of this year until September of the next.

As for the other teams in the group, Uzbekistan's high points haul during their second round qualifying march has a serious question mark next to it after being defeated by North Korea 4-2 near the start of that campaign. Syria scored a remarkable 26 goals during the second round, one less than group winners Japan, and ranked higher than China in the runners up table. But their inability to make a mark against Japan during their group matches, which also saw them concede 8 goals, suggests that Syria struggle against organized competition. Ultimately, China will be looking to take 6 points off an inexperienced Syrian side. And as for Qatar, China is well-acquainted with the Middle Eastern side and will be confident of stealing at least a couple of points from the team in the hope of a third or second place finish.

Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider (www.chinasportsinsider.com), believes that the draw was as good as China could have hoped for. "If you look at the way the draw was structured, with the teams arranged in six pots of two, this was about as kind a draw as China could have expected," Dreyer told China Plus. He added, "Iran is the highest ranked team in the AFC, so they will be tough, and South Korea is the other strong contender in China's group, but each is arguably preferable to Australia and Japan, respectively. Of the other teams in Group A, China has recent wins over both Uzbekistan and Qatar, and if China can't beat Syria then they are really in trouble! The aim will be to finish third at a minimum and hope to advance through the inter-confederation play-offs, but if China can get home wins or away draws against either Iran or South Korea, they may just be able to sneak into the top two on goal difference."

Claims have been bandied around that China is aiming to win a World Cup within 15 years. Though these claims have certainly not come from the government, it will no doubt add to the amount of pressure that a long-beleaguered Chinese team already faces every time they step onto the pitch with the nation's weight of expectation on their shoulders. However, signals from the government, in their release of a long term plan through to 2050, should temper the nation's expectations this time round. It appears as if authorities are finally buying into the long term approach as pursued by countries like South Korea and Japan, who only began to see real results over a decade after implementing widespread grassroots schemes.

In reference to this sentiment, Mark Dreyer notes that, "Overall, the odds of reaching the World Cup are still stacked against China. Seven teams are ranked higher than China, with only four guaranteed to go to Russia. Some argue that China has nothing to lose, but the pressure on China is always huge and the recent drive to develop the entire football structure could create expectations far beyond what recent history suggests the team is capable of."

While it remains the right of every football fan to dream of "what if" scenarios, it is unlikely that China's sporting authorities are expecting China to have reached the Finals come September next year. Reaching this level of the competition should already be seen as progress for a team ranked 81st within the FIFA rankings. Nonetheless, fans will of course keep dreaming, and expectation will continue to weigh down a low ranked team with high aspirations.



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