In China's lunar calendar, 2008 marks the Year of Rat, an animal which symbolises shrewdness and success. And with Asia's FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competition underway and the Men's Olympic Football Tournament kicking off in August, success is the word that the Chinese are hoping to associate with their team for the forthcoming year.
A place at South Africa 2010 and a medal at their Olympics are the targets for China PR, who embarked on the rebuilding process after their disappointing qualifying campaign for Germany 2006. The men charged with shaping the country's footballing destiny are Serbians Vladimir Petrovic, in charge of the national side, and Ratomir Dujkovic, who holds the reins of the Olympic team.
Yet despite the distinction, there is a fair amount of crossover. Of course, Dujkovic can count upon the services of three overage players in his U-23 squad when August comes around, but Petrovic too has been benefiting from his compatriot's team.
When China played Iraq on 6 February, Petrovic had three U-23 players in his squad as they earned a 1-1 draw against the current champions of Asia. Zhu Ting played a key role in attack and the position behind the striking duo was filled by Zhou Haibin, while at the back Feng Xiaoting formed a tight defensive partnership with Li Weifeng.
"The Olympic trio did a fairly good job during the game," Petrovic remarked after the match. "However, I don't see them as Olympic players but as an integrated part of the senior squad I am in charge of."
A united front
This approach extends to his coaching staff, with Dujkovic given the task of coordinating matters between the two teams, a job which is officially termed as 'general manager'. Besides coaching the U-23s, the 62-year-old is expected to lend his experiences to Petrovic's senior team from the dug-out.
Dujkovic admits that working in a dual role represents a
"Qualifying for the World Cup is important for the country's footballing development, but the whole nation is expecting us to achieve something great at the Olympic Games because we're the hosts," he said. "With all these pressures facing us, we're in a race against time."
Since the draw against Iraq, Petkovic has called up six more youngsters from the Olympic team into his squad, bringing the total of U-23 players in the national team set-up to nine. This dual responsibility will also be shared by three senior players, one of whom is likely to be Charlton Athletic midfielder Zheng Zhi.
China's next FIFA World Cup qualifying fixture comes on 26 March with a home game against Australia. Before that comes the matter of the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) Championship, which will give Petrovic the opportunity to try out new players and systems ahead of the clash with the Socceroos.
China will open the defence of the tournament title on Sunday 17 February against Korea Republic, before taking on Japan three days later. On 23 February they meet neighbouring Korea DPR in their final game.