He may be the fifth foreigner to hold the reins of China's national team, but Serbian Vladimir Petrovic was by no means a stranger to Chinese fans when he was handed the country's top football job in September. In fact, to a public that had watched him successfully guide Dalian Shide to a league and cup double in 2005, it came as no surprise when Petrovic was called upon by the Chinese Football Association.
Yet, despite his admirable record in the domestic arena, it goes without saying that the China job is the toughest challenge in the former Yugoslavia international's coaching career thus far, entailing as it does the task of leading China to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. FIFA.com sat down with the former Yugoslavia international to hear his views on his new team and their prospects of emerging from through a tough preliminary group that also includes Australia and AFC Asian Cup winners Iraq.
FIFA.com: Of all the imported coaches China have had, you are the first one to have had coached a Chinese Super League club before taking over the national team. Is the knowledge gained during your two-year spell with Dalian Shide a big help in your new job? Vladimir Petrovic: My experiences with Dalian not only provided me the elementary knowledge about Chinese football, but also, I guess, helped convince the Chinese Football Association, who eventually gave me the national team job. The biggest advantage for me is that, unlike my previous foreign predecessors, I don't need to spend too much time and energy on learning about the players. The majority of them come from the domestic league, with which I am rather familiar. As a result, it has taken me a shorter period to organise the new-look team.
How do you plan on selecting this new-look China team? What is your criteria?
The top priority is based on their performances with their respective clubs and only those who consistently impress in the league are eligible for the national team. Moreover, it is also down to their recent form and fitness, rather than their popularity.
What is the most important aspect of the rebuilding process?
When I took over the team three months ago, I found it was high time to rebuild the team's confidence. Only players with a burning desire to win and solid self-esteem can be competent against tough rivals. Besides, the importance of unity within the team can't be overstated and I am focusing to make them into a harmonious group who fight with one goal in mind: to win.
In what areas does the team need to improve?
First of all we have to take the right attitude, always bearing in mind that we must be serious and strict with what we are doing. As for the aspects of technique, the players must not only know how to play when they have the ball, but also how to fight and tackle to regain possession.
China have been drawn into a group also featuring Australia, Iraq and Qatar. What was your reaction to that draw?
It is definitely a tough group - arguably the toughest of all. We also have difficult fixtures because we will have to play four games in June - a difficulty also facing our rivals. But it is not all that bad playing against strong opponents as we will be forced to pull together to show our best.
What is your assessment of your group rivals?
All three group rivals are tough. Australia impressed in last year's World Cup and their physical strengths enable them to play good English-style football. Iraq are the newly-crowned Asian champions and even Qatar are equally competent, with their skillful naturalised players. Both Iraq and Qatar are now used to practical game plans, as they showed in July's Asian Cup. They know how to deal with stronger opponents and come out with a win, even if that is through a penalty shootout.
It is now less than two months until China's opening match against Iraq on 6 February. How do you plan on preparing the team? Have any friendlies been arranged?
Everything is going well and now the team is training to gain more fitness and energy for the forthcoming games. We have fixed up some friendlies and will try to play as many warms-up as possible.
Chinadisappointed in July's Asian Cup, failing to go beyond the group stage. What lessons do you think the team must learn in preparation for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers?
That only a well-prepared team will be able to perform well. We need to play some good friendlies against strong opposition to discover our mistakes and also to gain confidence.
With the strength of the section in which you've been drawn, even your own supporters are saying that China are underdogs. Are you still confident of leading the team through to their second FIFA World Cup finals?
I wouldn't have accepted the job if I wasn't confident of guiding the the team to South Africa 2010. When I worked with Dalian Shide, we qualified for the AFC Champions League, where we played quite well against our Asian rivals and we should have done better. I think China are more than capable of playing against any other Asian sides if they work hard in terms of the details.