China PR’s hopes were high when they reached Asia's final qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ especially after their last participation in a World Cup came at Korea/Japan 2002. However, after just three games, their hopes are already hanging by a thread. Two losses and a draw are the miserable start that leaves Team Dragon's hopes in real jeopardy with seven matches still to come.
Needless to say, Gao Hongbo's side face what is all but a must-win against hosts Uzbekistan on Tuesday if they are to keep their already-diminishing hopes alive. With the team under unprecedented pressure to obtain their first three points, former Chinese international striker Qu Bo sounded his support to them in a recent exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
"It is indeed a crucial moment," said the 34-year-old forward, who has scored five times from sixteen FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. "But it is also a great moment for the players because you are playing for the national team in World Cup qualifying. I usually tell my team-mates as well as myself: you can become a star with the club, but only with the national team may you become a hero of the country. I hope they can seize the opportunity."
Exploding on the qualifying scene
Fifteen years back, China, under Bora Milutinovic, booked their first and only qualification for the global extravaganza. Notable among that successful squad was Qu, a then rising star who made five appearances and scored two goals en route to qualification for Asia's first World Cup.
"That (2001) was a big year during my career," he continued, reflecting on the memorable campaign." I played in my first FIFA tournament-the U-20 World Cup in Argentina and scored two goals. Then I was called into the national senior side and played in a series of World Cup qualifying matches during which I was also on target a couple of times. And we made it to the World Cup!"
I usually tell my team-mates as well as myself: you can become a star with the club, but only with the national team may you become a hero of the country.
"For me, it was certainly a dream come true. Several years back, I watched our team play in Dalian in qualifying for France 1998. I was wondering when I could play for our country like them. I told myself to work hard to reach the goal. I made it in just four years. I became a national team player, played in World Cup qualifying and we progressed to the World Cup finals."
A huge gap to bridge
When China made their World Cup debut, Qu was 20 years old and the team's second youngest player. After his exploits in the U-20 World Cup and World Cup qualifying, where he dazzled spectators with his pacey runs and lightning strikes, he was considered as a youngster with great potential to realise on the global stage.
"I had high hopes in my first World Cup," Qu said, who featured in all three of their games, which they lost and conceded nine unanswered goals. "After prevailing in Asian qualifying, I was beginning to dream to play well in the World Cup. But after our group competition, I fully realised what a gap existed between the world’s best and us. It was a gap more than just the scorelines suggested. We were totally outrun in all aspects: speed, skill, physical strength and the reading of the game."
It was their second fixture against Brazil which brought Qu’s ambitions down to the earth. The South Americans were five goals up with a quarter-hour to go. Qu, nicknamed as the "Wind-chaser" for his exceptional speed, was sent on for Hao Haidong by Milutinovic as the debutants sought to open their goal-scoring accounts.
"I had a glorious chance quickly after I was brought on," added Qu, who capitalised on his speed to score a superb equaliser as a second-half substitute against hosts and eventual champions Argentina in the aforementioned U-20 World Cup. "I took the ball and beat a defender. It would be a perfect one-on-one chance if we faced rivals from either domestic league or Asian competitions. But another Brazilian player suddenly came and intercepted the ball from me when I had my sight of the goal. It was Roberto Carlos."
Looking back, Qu thinks about that World Cup campaign as something to cherish for a lifetime. “I was too young at Korea/Japan. Now I know how precious the World Cup experience is. I would use a camera to record every second of the matches if I were 20 playing in the World Cup again. The current team still have chances. I hope they can live up to expectations.”