If you should bump into a Chinese fan and ask what was the best team the world's most populous nation has ever produced, 99% of them will nominate the team of six years ago, which made history by booking qualification for their first-ever FIFA World Cup™ at Korea/Japan 2002 under Serbian coaching legend Bora Milutinovic.
Not surprisingly, this is also the opinion of former China captain Ma Mingyu, who played a key role in their near-miss in qualifying for France 1998, before steering the team to the world's football extravaganza six years ago.
"I think that was our best squad in history, because the team oozed quality from every pore," the former midfield stalwart, now the Deputy General Manager of Chinese Super League side Chengdu Blades, told FIFA.com. "The team had the likes of Hao Haidong, Fan Zhiyi and Li Tie, who were all in their prime in those days."
"That same squad showed their potential four years earlier, when we were only denied a place at France 1998 in the penultimate qualifying match against Saudi Arabia, which we drew 1-1 away." But 2002 was the right time for the side, he concludes. "With the experiences we gained [in the 1998 campaign] and a coaching legend like Bora at the reins, we eventually broke new ground by progressing to the World Cup finals."
Asked to enumerate the key figures in this "golden generation", the modest Ma did not deign to mention himself. Yet the 38-year-old was regarded by many as one of the most creative players in Milutinovic's squad; in the Serbian coach's own words, Ma was the side's "reliable brain".
Ma made 71 international appearances, scoring eight goals, and his career included a short spell with Italian club Perugia, where he spent eight months warming the bench before departing for home side Sichuan in 2001.
"It was a pity I was not given any playing time with Perugia, but I gained exposure to top-level football by training with the team. At home I could handle the domestic competition easily, but in Italy I was found wanting - that just illustrated the gulf that still exists between Chinese players and the world's best," he remarks.
It did not take too long for Ma to re-establish himself at continental level, and he figured prominently throughout China's qualifying campaign, where they sealed qualification for Korea/Japan 2002 with a game to spare. Ma became the apple of the fans' eyes, attracting the affectionate nickname "Little Colt".
Their FIFA World Cup debut, however, was a harsh lesson. Ma and Co conceded nine goals without reply against Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey to bow out at the group stage, and the bitter experience made Ma acutely aware of the tasks facing China if they were to catch up with the world's best. "Against Brazil, sadly, we had to acknowledge that we were outstripped in every department - pace, strength, experience and skill," he recalls. "It was then that I began to think about the job of building our next generation."
Ma turned contemplation into action quickly. As soon as he hung up his boots in 2003, he established a youth football school which provided young Chinese talents with a development path. Many football dignitaries, including former AFC General Secretary Peter Velappan, visited the school and paid tribute to Ma's efforts.
Later, he saw the offer by the Chengdu Blades to join the club's managerial team as another chance to contribute to China football's development. "The league is the major source of players for the national team, so if we have a strong, well-run league, we will have a strong national team."
Facts and figures
Clubs: Sichuan (1990-1994, 1997-2000, 2001-2003), Guangdong Hongyuan (1995-1996), Perugia (2001).
National team: 71 caps (8 goals)
Honours: Chinese League Midfielder of the Year (1996), FIFA World Cup finals appearance (2002).
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