Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Asia's sleeping giant stirs
The sight of Mark Viduka grinning from ear-to-ear and engulfed by a huge bouquet of Chinese flowers in a Guangzhou hotel lobby was one of the lingering images of Australia's previous visit to the People's Republic.
A poor Asian Cup could give way to a more impressive World Cup qualifying for China. (GettyImages)
It was March 2007 and the Viduka-skippered Socceroos had just arrived in the southern city after a three hour bus ride from Hong Kong.
A couple of days later, they left with a warm glow of satisfaction after a Viduka master-class inspired the Aussies to a surprisingly comfortable and self-assured 2-0 victory in a pre-Asian Cup friendly.
The trip turned out to be a kind of false dawn for the Socceroos' competitive entry into their new region.
In less than a year, confidence has turned to uncertainty after a bitterly disappointing Asian Cup, the unexpectedly hasty appointment of a new coach and Viduka's unavailability for the start - and maybe longer - of the Socceroos' 2010 World Cup campaign.
The Chinese have respect but will no longer be in awe of Asia's best-performed representative from Germany 2006 when they host Pim Verbeek's side on March 26th in Kunming.
Kunming has year-round mild weather but - as a sister city with Denver, Colorado - sits at an uncomfortable altitude of 1890 metres and at an inconvenient location in China's southwest, which means a long and lung-busting trip for the Socceroos.
After several recent setbacks, the chronically-underachieving mainlanders are desperate to produce the goods this time, and have been given every incentive, including a US$1 million payout if they qualify for only their second World Cup finals.
Asian champions Iraq and Asian Games winners Qatar are the other teams in the so-called -group of death' - every nation is ranked in the region's top-10 - with only the first two sides moving through to the next round towards South Africa.
According to the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper, members of the Chinese squad made a New Year's vow to fight their way through a torturous qualifying path.
'We swear by death to kill along the bloody road of defending the honour of the motherland and realise our youthful dreams,' the players reportedly recited in unison.
The all-or-nothing approach comes in the wake of China's poor performance at last year's Asian Cup in which they failed to progress from the Malaysia group stage - a 3-0 loss to Uzbekistan being the lowlight. In their previous game, they blew a 2-0 lead to be held to a 2-2 draw by Iran.
After qualifying for the 2002 World Cup under much-loved former coach Bora Milutinovic, China failed to score a goal as they lost all three matches, even though the tournament was played on Asian soil for the first time.
Despite the steady production of talented players bound for Europe - including Li Tie, Sun Jihai and Manchester United's Dong Fangzhou - the Chinese are notoriously goal-shy and have a habit of producing appalling performances when the stakes are high.
'The Chinese have problems scoring because they fear a loss of face if they miss in front of goal,' said former coach, Arie Haan. In their most recent international action - a friendly on January 10th - China drew 0-0 with the United Arab Emirates in Dubai.
After the Asian Cup failure, Zhu Guanghu was replaced as coach by ex-Arsenal player of the 1970s, Vladimir Petrovic, along with another Serbian Ratomir Dukjovic. They are trying to rebuild confidence in a national system which has seen a decline in junior playing numbers in the wake of a series of scandals and a tradition of bureaucracy.
But, a little like Newcastle United in the English Premier League, there is a feeling that this sleeping giant could soon get its act together. And when it does, it could be scary.
Like the Socceroos, the Chinese have the advantage of having members of their Olympic team to call on when necessary, although the upcoming Beijing Games could prove to be as much a distraction as it is an advantage for the senior side.
Another thing both sides will have in common is an adjustment to new coaches and a new playing system.
Former South Korea boss Verbeek will be familiar with the ways of Petrovic from his two years in charge of Chinese heavyweights, Dalian Shide.
With the shaky Socceroos hosting a far better prepared Qatar side in their opening qualifier, Verbeek, who says 12 out of a possible 18 points will be needed to top the group, may find himself in a position of having to go for broke when the Aussies visit the world's most populous nation seven weeks later.
As technical director Rob Baan points out, Australia's cruise to victory in Guanghzou 12 months earlier will count for nothing with invaluable World Cup points, and a million bucks, on the line; especially with no Mark Viduka to take the brickbats or bouquets.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN.