Over 2,500 years ago Confucius taught his followers to 'take heart from their disappointments'. Therefore, the greatest Chinese philosopher would have been proud of his footballing descendants after seeing how well the team has recovered after missing out on a berth at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ Germany. Since July, the East Asians have embarked on a rebuilding process which has seen them move 14 places up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 75th spot.
Their progress has come on top of a series of good results in the qualification campaign for the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. On 16 August they defeated Singapore by a single goal before being held to a goalless draw by the same opposition three weeks later. A comfortable 2-0 win over Palestine in their penultimate qualifying match was enough to secure a place in the finals of the competition, ensuring that their final match against Iraq, which ended in a 1-1 draw, was merely academic.
Under coach Zhu Guanghu, they maintained the upward trajectory in their opening fixture of 2007 as they came from one goal down to defeat Kazakhstan at 2-1 in a friendly on 7 February, a result which played a contributory factor to the team's four-place rise in March's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Coach Zhu's charges may have found themselves vulnerable against Australia in a friendly on 24 March, which they lost 2-0 at home , but they maintained their status as one of the continent's most competitive teams as they deservedly overcame Uzbekistan 3-1 in the latest friendly match.
Han comes of age
The team's recent successes have coincided with several new talents rising through the ranks. Han Peng, who scored ten times as Shandong Luneng won the league and cup double last season, stood out among the emerging stars in the team's friendly wins against the two form Soviet republics.
The 23-year-old striker put China level scores against on the half-hour mark to cancel out a Murat Suyumagambetov goal in the 16th minute, before his club team-mate Li Jinyu sealed the victory with a header shortly before the break.
The towering forward was instrumental in the 3-1 against Uzbekistan, completing a brace in the first half to give China a great advantage. Uzbekistan's woes were further compounded when Botir Karaev scored an own goal after the interval, leaving Vladimir Shishelov's as nothing more than a consolation.
China will open their AFC Asian Cup finals campaign against co-hosts Malaysia on 10 July and if they are to improve on the runners-up finish they achieved as hosts in the previous edition in 2004, the experiences of their overseas-based stars will be as equally as important as the impetus provided by the younger players.
Fortunately for coach Zhu Guanghu and his team, he can include the likes of Sun Jihai , Zheng Zhi and Dong Fangzhuo who are all plying their trade in the English Premiership.
Manchester United forward Dong and Manchester City full-back Sun each had a hand in the opening two goals against Uzbekistan. Dong stormed into the rivals' area to set Han Peng up for the opening goal and Sun launched a counter-attack four minutes from break that led to the team's second. Charlton Athletic midfielder Zheng also created a couple of good chances against Australia only to see his team-mates miss the target.
Having watched China's overseas-based players in a recent European trip, coach Zhu sounds optimistic about the team's prospect in the continental event. "With the likes of Zheng Zhi and Sun Jihai and other European-based players, I am sure we will be able to play against any team in the Asian Cup," he smiled.