Shao Jiayi further cemented his place in the Chinese set-up after an excellent display in the last 2007 AFC Asian Cup qualifying match against Singapore, bossing the team's attack from midfield and forcing a last-minute penalty from which he scored the only goal. The 26-year-old Energie Cottbus man looked almost the only eye-catching figure over a lackluster 90 minutes and will carry the hopes of a Chinese revival squarely on his shoulders.
Heading into the return leg at Singapore's National Stadium on 6 September, the former 1860 Munich midfielder is confident his side can snatch another win. Shao, who impressed at the previous AFC Asian Cup, scoring three times to help China reach the final, is looking to break further ground by helping China collect their first continental prize.
On the eve of the Singapore test, he chatted exclusively to FIFA.com about his career, his move to the Bundesliga and his excitement about China's future prospects.
How did it feel to struggle so mightily with Singapore, only winning thanks to a last-minute spot kick?
You know, we were a better team than our rivals in every regard: individual technique, physical energy, height and strength. As you saw, we dominated the match for the entire 90 minutes and created far more chances, but we were simply unlucky when it came time to convert our chances.
Would it be fair to say the current Chinese team is still in desperate need of a lethal weapon up front like Hao Haidong?
Hao Haidong is a superb striker and it is always great to have someone like him on the field. But scoring goals is not something that is down only to the forwards - it is the responsibility of the entire team. I am sure we can still score goals as long as we function like a group and employ the proper strategies.
But Singapore's defensive approach nearly succeeded and they will be very likely to stick with the same tactical approach in the return leg…
In a football match, focusing on defense is almost all that the underdogs can and should do. For Singapore, their only hope is to rely on defending first and capitalizing on any possible defensive errors by us. This is how they stunned Iraq in their first qualifying match.
You impressed in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, helping China reach the final and finishing joint top-scorer in the side. What goals have you set for the next Asian Cup finals?
We are setting the bar high and I hope we can improve on our previous achievements in China 2004 where we finished runners-up.
You followed the trail blazed by former Beijing Guoan team-mate Yang Chen when you moved to 1860 Munich in January 2003. Having settled down and lived in Germany for nearly four years, what is your advice for other Asian up-and-comers with dreams of a move to Europe?
In football the first priorities are ability and talent. So for those young players, first of all, they have to continue to focus on improving their technique and mental strength. The chance will only come when they have the potential to compete at such a high level.
How difficult is it for a young player to settle into a new life in Europe?
Communication is the biggest problem. To fit into the new environment you need to learn new languages and cultures, to comprehend and respect your coach and team-mates. Only then will you be treated with similar respect.
Can you communicate with your German friends and team-mates easily?
(He laughs) I have to say I am still working hard and studying the language. I can understand them when it comes to football, but generally I still need to improve my German.
How are things going at your new club, Energie Cottbus?
It feels great to play with the club. In our team the managerial staff are very much in charge but they also listen to the players' input. And this makes us more united as a team.
What was your impression of the FIFA World Cup staged in your adopted home this past summer?
The last World Cup represented world football's highest level and indicated the developing trend of football, balanced overall play.
What was your favorite match?
I can name quite a few. France's Round of 16 clash with Spain was a magnificent match while both Germany and Italy played very well in their semi-final. Of course, in the final, Italy and France treated us all to an absolute classic.
In your opinion, what were the biggest obstacles that kept China from reaching their second FIFA World Cup in qualifying for Germany 2006?
We were not defeated technically or physically. It was our own internal problems that cost us. I mean, if we look back at our successful qualifying campaign for 2002, we can see why we failed this time around. Put plainly, we can make it to South Africa 2010 only if we can reach the same level of harmonious cohesion and solidarity that we had on the road to Korea/Japan.