Sunday, February 14, 2010

China - a new dawn?

Victory over Hong Kong in Tokyo today will all but seal the East Asian Championship title for China, something few would have expected a little over a week ago when the tournament kicked off. For a nation where the football scene is mired in all manner of negativity, their reemergence over the last week has been the most compelling story of what has, otherwise, been a rather dull competition.

But while there will be some who will wax lyrical about China's achievement should they win the title (others will no doubt use it to lambast both the Japanese and Koreans), their performances in Japan only serve to highlight the folly of decisions taken in Beijing several years ago. Because, had the Chinese sporting authorities not been so blinkered by their impending hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, China could well be on the way to this year's World Cup finals.

In the run up to the Beijing Olympics, China's central government was so blinded by the Olympiad that it became the focus for everything going on in the nation, to the detriment of other areas - including the nation's bid to reach the 2010 World Cup. The penultimate phase of qualifying for South Africa was held at a time when Olympic fever was building in China and the authorities chose to take resources away from the national team and put them towards the U-23 squad and their attempt to make an impression at the Games. A place in the semifinals was the target and no expense was to be spared in ensuring it was achieved.

The plan, however, backfired. First, the less-than-perfectly-prepared national side was eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup. Admittedly they were in a tough group that featured Iraq, Australia and Qatar, but the debacle surrounding head coach Vladimir Petrovic and the man in charge of the Olympic team - Radomir Djukovic - turned the whole scenario into a dog's dinner and deprived China of any real hope of posing a serious threat to the other teams in the group.

To some, that failure would have been viewed as a worthy sacrifice had the Olympic team prevailed, winning a medal in the world's most popular sport under the glare of the global spotlight. The problem was, they didn't. China's Olympic team were unable to progress from the group stage and since then the country has been thinking about what might have been.

With west Asian nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in a slump and China not having progressed to the final phase of qualifying, North Korea were the nation that benefitted most from the current malaise in Asian football. It could - and perhaps should - have been China. Another opportunity lost for a nation that has - on the football field at least - an uncanny knack of shooting itself in the foot.

Perhaps victory in the East Asian Championship- coupled with the bloodletting exercise that is ongoing in China at the moment - will change all of that. But Chinese football has been here before, winning the 2005 edition of the competition after missing out on the final phase of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Hopefully this time, the lessons will be learned.

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