51 days to go to the AFC Asian Cup, UAE 2019

John Yan: To Russia with hope 出线第一

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.

出线第一

社交媒体上,对于这次抽签的结果,大部分声音都是”乐观”、”看好”,甚至”上上签”。我在转播中,抽签结果一出来就赶紧发条微博,想看看反馈如何。微博上反馈出来的的观感,比我想象的还要积极。

主观地评判,这种积极顺理成章,应该属于中国足球最近一系列变化的击中体现,是亚洲杯上国家队成绩复苏之后,鼓舞了球迷信心的事态顺延。身为这次2018世界杯亚洲区四十强种子队,出线进入十二强,似乎顺理成章,但中国足球这么多年来,从没顺理成章过。

小组赛的对手,并不是顺理成章就能战胜的对手。第二档次球队的卡塔尔,或许也会认为,他们抽到了一个”上上签”。在此前的世界杯预选赛上,卡塔尔扮演过中国队苦手的角色,更重要的是,这个2022年世界杯东道国,此前还没有进过任何世界杯决赛圈。如此尴尬的角色,卡塔尔人肯定不想延续到2022年,2018他们的准备和投入,据西亚媒体透露,会是空前的。而且卡塔尔的各种招数,层出不穷。

一届世界杯外围赛,他们在阵容名单、归化球员等问题上,有过不少值得推敲乃至警惕的先例。几年前马德兴先生对于卡塔尔归化球员的调查,音犹在耳,卡塔尔竞争2022世界杯的过程,也是争议和杂音最多的。这个对手绝对不容易攻克。

亚洲杯上,中国队小组赛和沙特的交手,也许就是和卡特人遭逢的一种预演。中国队战胜了日益衰落的沙特,但过程惊险。卡塔尔能给中国队提出的疑问,肯定会比沙特更多。

在出线第一的背景下,马尔代夫、不丹和中国香港,要比卡塔尔更重要,因为世预赛规则决定着,四十强小组赛是八个小组头名直接出线,四个成绩最好的小组第二名出线。对卡塔尔的好分数,和对和对其他对手的好分数,一样重要。中国队必须在每个对手每场比赛每个进球上,去争取最好的结果。两回合对卡塔尔取得领先,当然重要,然而在马尔代夫或者不丹的客场,多争取到一个净胜球,也许会随着出线情势变化,而更加重要。

和过往几届相比,要说2018世界杯四十强赛的”上上签”,从舟车劳顿的旅行难度来说,或许略有优化,至少跨越亚洲去西亚作战只有一次,时区上的跨度不是那么大。

出线足球让人厌倦,但出线第一的要求,并不意味着中国足球的整体战略,因为世界杯任务,而完全转向为出线。当即时任务为出线时,策动各种资源去保证出线,不是倒行逆施。中国足协和各俱乐部、各种国际足球势力的协调平衡,对国家队的长时期运营保障、对对手的各种动态掌握和情报分析,会在足球新环境的社会各界高关注度下面临考验。

预选赛是一个漫长而充满变化的过程,这在过去历届世界杯预选赛上都能找到充分证据。对球队和主教练佩兰来说,每一个90分钟都是大考,不过如何给佩兰和球员们配备最好的武器,尽可能保证在不影响联赛竞技的同时,让国家队在每场小组赛,都能以最强阵容、最好的状态登场,这是对中国足协系统协调能力的长时间大考。

这样的抽签形势和对手,并不需要太多的出奇制胜,也绝不容许盲目乐观。不犯错,正常平稳发挥,出线就极有可能,但出线是这四十强的第一也是唯一要求。