Zhang Ning: The future of Chinese football
The FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 may be almost half-a-year away but China's top teenagers have already been in training for months. After winning their second continental title last September in Japan, the Asian champions will leave no stone unturned in their bid for world success. Coach Zhang Ning told FIFA.com how his team are preparing for their biggest challenge to date.
FIFA.com: This is China's fourth appearance at a FIFA junior tournament since its inception in 1985 when the country reached the quarter-finals as hosts. What goals have you set for September's finals in Peru?
Zhang Ning: Without a doubt we are hoping to improve on our quarter-final finish at the inaugural FIFA tournament. We're aware that's a difficult ask but believe we'll be able to cope with any rival as long as we prepare well and play to our best.
At the same time, we're hoping the players will learn greatly from the experience of rubbing shoulders with the best and become the future of China's football.
Although perhaps under-strength, the China U-17 team finished second from bottom of an 8-nation youth tournament in Moscow this January. Were you satisfied with those results?
In our five matches with those East Europeans sides, we lost to Ukraine (5-2) and Latvia (3-0), drew with Belarus (1-1), while beating Lithuania (4-0) and edging Poland on a penalty shootout. But the results were not the only thing we were looking for. It was more important for our young players to gain international exposure. True - the team were missing five players that had joined the 08 Stars Team in Germany and seven others who were sidelined by injury. Also please remember that all our rivals were U-18 teams, so we were a year younger.
However despite the results, we have learned a great deal from our European opponents in terms of technique, tactics and mentality. More of our weak points were exposed and we are now working hard to improve in these areas.
What kind of lessons were learned by playing against European sides?
European teenagers are generally more physical and technically accomplished than most Asian youth players. They also possess a cutting edge in terms of positional play and tactical discipline. As shown at the last FIFA U-17 World Championship in Finland two years ago, they were able to play as a team during 90 minutes.
It's hard to play against them, but we played good attacking football against Lithuania to win by a big margin and played solidly to hold Belarus and Poland to 1-1 in 90 minutes. It helped our confidence.
You recaptured the Asian crown last September. What strengths does this team have?
We won because we prepared well for the tournament. At least in Asia, our players have physical and mental advantages over the other teams. We have better stamina, a stronger will to win and can change play swiftly between attack and defence.
How are you preparing for the world championship this September?
The team went to a one-month training camp at Qingyuan centre on 20 February, and then travels to Japan for the Sanix Tournament. In May we are going to participate in an international tournament in the Netherlands, where we are expected to play against youth teams from European clubs Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven. After an excursion to the USA in July, there will be a 35-day final preparation before the FIFA tournament in Peru.