After cruising to Asia's third round of qualifying by dispatching Myanmar 11-0 on aggregate, China, the world's most populous nation, are aiming to repeat their success of eight years ago when Bora Milutinovic led them to a first-ever place at the FIFA World Cup™ finals.
However, the team's prospects are being overshadowed by their disastrous campaign in the AFC Asian Cup 2007, in which the previous edition's runners-up failed to progress beyond the group stage for the first time in history. The disappointing results came as a heavy blow, and having missed out on the previous FIFA World Cup in Germany, China's footballing pride was hurt to the point of distraction.
The disappointment sparked a nationwide storm of criticism and
led to the resignation of coach Zhu Guanghu, who succeeded Dutchman
Arie Haan in early 2005 following their failed campaign for Germany
The home-grown coach's failure led to the FA reverting to their policy of hiring foreigners, and the reins went to Serbian Vladimir Petrovic in September. To assist the former Yugoslav international, China U-23 coach Ratomir Dujkovic was handed the dual role of assisting with the seniors as well as coaching the Olympic team. China, aiming to book their first place at the world's showpiece since 2002, are thus putting their qualifying hopes on a pair of experienced Serbs.
China is never short of footballing potential, as they have always been tipped as the hot contenders on the continental stage. However, the fact remains that they have never won an Asian title and have only represented the continent at FIFA World Cups once, issues that label them as Asia's perennial underachievers.
One of the physically strongest teams in Asia, China have lacked the necessary mentality and stamina to play an entire 90 minutes. Against Iran in the second match at the recent Asian Cup, they threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 before conceding three goals in the last 18 minutes to lose the last match at the hands of Uzbekistan.
Despite this, few argue that the East Asians will be a team to beat should they get over their supposed inferiority complex. This was proved by the charismatic Milutinovic, under whom they reached an unprecedented unity and self-confidence to win six of their eight matches in the final qualifying round to progress to Korea/Japan 2002.
There is talent enough in the team to make it one of the formidable sides in Asia. Towering striker Han Peng proved his prolific form with a brace against Malaysia in the opening match in the Asian Cup and his aerial dominance is sure to give opponents problems. Alongside him will be Manchester United forward Dong Fangzhuo, whose pace and powerful shot offers the team options. The midfield should be their strongest section, with both Charlton Athletic man Zheng Zhi and Energie Cottbus' set-piece specialist Shai Jiayi bossing things, while at the back former captain Li Weifeng boasts plenty of experience in leading the defensive line.
China started their qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010 in uninspired fashion, securing only three points from their first three games, and scoring only one goal. Their mental toughness was called into question once again when Shao Jiayi missed a last-minute penalty in their match against group favourites Australia. After holding hosts Qatar to a goalless draw away, Petrovic's team then inexplicably fell short in the next two home matches, losing to both Qatar and Iraq to bring their campaign to an abrupt end, unceremoniously exiting the competition at the third Asian qualifying stage for the second successive time.