If one can believe the social media world, Team China should have already qualified for World Cup 2018. Even though the AFC has only just announced the draw for the eight groups, which is only the secondary stage of a long long qualification process for the Russian tournament.
While China was announced as the seeded team in a group containing Qatar, the Maldives, Bhutan and Hong Kong, still in the TV studio while broadcasting the draw as it happened in the AFC headquarters in KL, I checked the social media response. Positive, top draw, and confident were the key words. That was rosier than I expected.
Maybe that’s the change of mentality in China football. The national team did reasonably well in January’s Asian Cup, and on March 16, the central government announced the Overall Reform on China Football. To qualify from this group, and enter the final stage of World Cup in Asia, as one of the 12 remaining teams, China should be able to deliver. At least make it to the Last Twelve Stage.
That was the bottom line expectation from fans.
However, Qatar might consider this is the top draw for them, because they have sound memories of frustrating China in World Cup qualifications. And as the host nation of World Cup 2022, Qatar has so far not qualify for any previous World Cup Finals before they host. Russia 2018 would be their last chance.
According to the rules of the AFC, each top team from eight groups qualify for the Final Twelve directly, along with the four BEST second placed teams with from those eight groups. Qatar has always been a bogey team for China. Eight years ago, when China encountered Qatar in the qualification for the 2006 World Cup, Qatar enlisted an illegal Brazilian footballer in their national team’s squad. China media found this out and reported it to the AFC, but there was no serious punishment for Qatarand China didn’t get out of the group stage and qualify for the Last Ten.
For this group stage, qualification for the Last Twelve would be the one and only target. However, the CFA nor Mr. Perrin, the head coach of Team China, could talk about qualification by all costs to media, as the concept of Qualification Football has become a sore spot for China Football. The CFA has gambled a lot on qualification for the last three World Cups, sacrificing the league and other football projects to guarantee the full internationals had all resources they needed. But the national team still couldn’t make it to the Last Ten nor Last Twelve, and other football projects have suffered from this qualification gamble.
China has to at least make to the final qualification stage, and the draw is promising in its sense. There is only one Western Asian team in this group, and that itself could save a lot of trouble for those travelling fanatically from east Asia to the west.
The importance of this qualification process, is to gain more time and breathing space for Chinese football. For World Cup 2018, Asia only has 4.5 positions, and China is not strong enough to compete against Japan, South Korea, Australia nor Iran. To make it to the final stage, better to the final day, would attract more lukewarm so-called fans to pay attention to football, and keep the trend of football improvement concrete.
China is such a sexy concept, that seemingly all European clubs with ideas of ownership change, have some close or remote Chinese link. AC Milan might be sold to a bunch of Chinese investors, and the latest news is the owner of 360.com, one of the most controversial internet companies, could be purchasing Aston Villa from Randy Lerner.
Football may be a hot and sexy idea now, but the performance of Team China, is vital for the Overall Reform. Qualification football? It hasn’t changed yet.
John Yan is Deputy Editor of Netease.com.