China PR’s qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has been mixed at best, resulting in the exit of coach Alain Perrin. In his stead has come a familiar face in the form of Gao Hongbo who assumed the reins recently on an interim basis in the aftermath of the team's disappointing push for Russia 2018.
A loss in Qatar and two draws against Hong Kong from six outings were the miserable results which cost French manager Perrin his job and left Team Dragon on the verge of early elimination. Languishing in third place and trailing the qualifying-qualified Qataris by seven points, the Chinese must win the remaining two matches and hope other results also go their way if they are to progress as one of the best runners-up.
"To be honest, it is a tricky scenario facing us," Gao told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "There is no doubt that our hopes are hanging by a thread. We should put the disappointment behind us and stare the difficulty in the face. We need to focus on the next matches although the destiny is not entirely in our hands."
Planning for future success
Gao’s last appointment came in the wake of China’s failed campaign for South Africa 2010. Despite being only the second home-grown national coach after Zhu Guanghu since 1997, his first three-year spell yielded a string of glittering results. His squad drew 1-1 with Germany and defeated France 1-0 in friendlies, and they ended a 32-year hoodoo against Korea Republic with a 3-0 victory against the Taeguk Warriors in the 2010 East Asian Cup. When Gao made way for Jose Antonio Camacho in 2011, China featured in Asia's top-five in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Awaiting Gao now are two home games which they cannot afford to lose - against Maldives on 24 March and Qatar five days later. Not only are the tasks daunting, but he has also been given little time to prepare the team. Despite this, Gao has fixed his sights on more than just getting good results.
"I am a Chinese coach," continued Gao, who turns 50 this January. "Being home-grown, I have responsibility of supporting our team. Over recent years, our national teams of nearly all age levels have under-performed in Asian qualifying, and have failed to progress to FIFA tournaments. In this regard, my tasks are not limited in leading the team through the World Cup qualifying games, but also thinking about the team's future. The target by the national FA is reform and we will find the right path to the transformation of the national teams."
A quick-thinking star-striker in his playing days, Gao has developed fame as a coach who stresses the technical side of the game. A series of young talents have been selected for the upcoming qualifiers, with the most notable being none other than Beijing Guoan playmaker Zhang Xizhe who recently returned to the capital side after an unconvincing short spell with VfL Wolfsburg.
"At least in Asia, Chinese players are physically good so physical strengths are not a problem for us," said Gao, explaining why he favours technically-gifted players. "So what we need to improve most is in the sides of techniques and tactics. Our players are fast, strong and we have tall players who are good in leaping and heading. If they learn how to use their heads during play, and if their techniques are as good as their physical strengths and fitness, the breakthrough will come naturally."
Needless to say, good results as well as excellent displays by the team are necessary if Gao is to maintain his place. Even if they make it to the next phase, the competition for the national job is expected to be tight with several dozen foreign candidates waiting in the wings.
"Our technical experts group will decide that (who is qualified for the China coach). At the moment, my ratings are good but there are over 50 foreign competitors for this job. For me, I take things as they come. I try my best to do my current job well and it is important for the players to pull together and prove themselves in the next matches."
“The general picture of Chinese football is not bad, especially at club and grassroots levels. There is increasing investment by our clubs and as a result, more and more star-players have travelled across the globe to come to play in the Chinese League. The league has been professional for 22 years. Our clubs have won Asian championships and a growing number of talents have been produced. We should be optimistic to the future."