China goalkeeper Jiang Jin, one of the best shotstoppers Asia have produced over the past two decades, played a key role in the world’s most populous nation qualifying for FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in 2002. Still remembered for his heroics between the sticks during their successful qualifying campaign, the 41-year-old revealed it was a fortuitous accident that might have changed his own fate – and perhaps that of China.
The potentially pivotal moment occurred just prior to the away match against Oman in Asia’s qualifying final round on 31 August, 2001. China, under legendary coach Bora Milutinovic, arrived at Muscat seeking their second successive victory but Jiang Jin, whose form had been exemplary throughout the preliminary round, began suffering from a severe toothache the night prior to the match.
“The pain caused by one of my right-side teeth was so great that I had to receive some medical treatment to play,” Jiang Jin told FIFA.com in a recent interview. “But upon kick-off an idea suddenly came to my mind, being that I must dive to my right side if facing up to a penalty kick.”
Sure enough fate ensured that his perception would need to become reality, as Oman earned a penalty kick before the half-time break. Needless to say, Jiang Jin pounced to push Hani Al Dhabit’s low shot against his right post before Fan Zhiyi popped up to clear the rebound. This save proved the turning-point of the match, and arguably the qualification campaign, as China proceeded to claim three important points away from home with a 2-0 scoreline.
Inspired by the hard-fought win, Jiang Jin went on to impress in their 1-1 away draw against nemesis Qatar, and their 2-0 win over Uzbekistan where the hardy custodian was only replaced for a broken finger when his side were two goals to the good. Jiang Jin may have been ruled out for the remaining qualifiers with that injury but his significant contribution in helping China to their first-ever FIFA World Cup has been widely recognised.
Born in 1968 to a footballing family, Jiang Jin inherited both talent and passion for the game from his father Jiang Yonglin, a long-standing goalkeeper with Shanghai. He was recruited by the Bayi FC (the Army Club) as a 12-year-old alongside his older brother Jiang Hong who also impressed with his shot-stopping abilities. The brothers thrived after the Chinese league turned professional in 1994, with Jiang Jin becoming Bayi’s number one, while Hong excelled between the posts with Shenzhen Pingan. Their sibling rivalry would continue right through to the international arena with both representing China in 1997.
Jiang Jin went one better eventually establishing himself as China’s first choice goalkeeper during the coaching reign of Englishman Bob Houghton. A tournament best showing at the 1998 Asian Games further cemented his place as the team’s number one. After Milutinovic took over in 2000, Jiang Jin didn’t take too long to win the confidence of the Serb tactician as he stood out in that year’s AFC Asian Cup, where he again collected the tournament’s best goalkeeper award.
Having peaked on the continental stage, Jiang Jin saw his goal breached nine times in their three group matches at Korea/Japan 2002. “We may have had a chance against the Costa Rica in the opener, but against Brazil and Turkey we were outnumbered, both technically and physically,” he said. “With the gulf that exists between us and the world’s best, we should embark on long-term build-up and youth development.”
After hanging his boots in 2007, Jiang Jin has been coaching a team consisting of the nation’s pop stars, organising benefit matches for charity while attracting fans back to the stadiums. “I hope we can reignite their interest and passion for the game and show them that this is indeed a beautiful game,” he concluded.