What can cure China’s woes?

Gao Hongbo didn’t even wait for the stadium lights to go out; leaving a media official to explain his absence from the post-match press conference following China’s 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan earlier this week.

According to reports there was an ‘agreement’ between the CFA and the national coach that he should leave his post if China lost in Tashkent and amongst several other failings, at least he was a man of his word having fled straight back to the team hotel to gather his things as Uzbek supporters trundled off to contemplate their own lofty position as the March to Moscow approaches the halfway stage.

A shock 1-0 loss at home to war-torn Syria the week prior had prompted thousands of fans to gather outside the stadium in Xian, chanting long into the night for the head of the CFA, Cai Zhenhua.

Defeat in central Asia was clearly the final straw and with Qatar seeing off Syria in the latter kickoff it means that China now slump to the bottom of the six-team group with just a lone point from their four matches to date.

With two of their next three matches coming against the traditional powers in the section, Iran and South Korea, the timing was obviously right but the bigger question is just who, if anyone, can fix the current malaise afflicting football in the world’s most populous nation?

A cavalcade of out-of-work managers will no doubt be linked with the post – and the CFA have said they want someone in place within a week – but it’s unlikely any can swing things over the coming twelve months to lead China to what would be just their second FIFA World Cup appearance.

The first came in 2002 when China booked just one of two spots reserved for Asia given the co-hosting of Japan & South Korea but that squad, unlike the current one, contained a core group of players who had or would go on to have time with European clubs.

That group was headlined by Fan Zhiyi, Sun Jihai, Shao Jiayi and Li Tie as well as some wise old heads in captain Ma Mingyu and one of the best forwards the nation has known in Hao Haidong.

It also contained a young Du Wei who, to the surprise of many, was recalled for this round of matches and who was directly at fault for the 50th minute opener scored by Marat Bikmaev that set the Uzbeks on their way.

Amongst several other puzzling selections, especially around the goalkeeping position, the one that stood out the most was the absence of another veteran in Zheng Zhi and these moves combined with the revolts and results meant that change was inevitable.

Change though doesn’t always mean progress and given what many see as the confluence between the hyper-charged investment in the club game and a desired improvement in the national team the agitators want that progress to arrive immediately.

It is, of course, not that simple.

Whilst the spending spree that has brought some of the leading lights of South American & European football (and indeed Asian) to the Middle Kingdom has – despite what you might read in the British media – helped to maintain and increase the popularity and standard of the Super League the fact remains that the benefit of that investment for the national team is a more long-term process.

Training alongside players of the ilk of Hulk, Jackson Martinez, Granziano Pelle and Gervinho – to name but a few – will surely raise the standard of the Chinese players at their clubs and the impact of those stars is in many ways just as much about increasing the professionalism of the players off the pitch as it is on it.

What’s also often overlooked is it’s not just the players but the coaches and support staff that the leading clubs have also been heavily investing in and it’s there where the most evident change may come at the top as an increase in tactical know-how and especially sports science are also all adding up to the league starting to seriously challenge the more established ones on the continent as being perhaps the ‘best’ in Asia.

Despite all the investment at the top though, it’s at the grassroots where the change will come and this is – and there are no shortcuts available – a multi-generational issue.

For the longest time with football mired in mediocrity and beset by issues around match fixing (which have merely shifted a division now to League One) it was hardly the sport of choice for young children growing up in China, especially with a priority being placed in many families on education and employment.

Now though with mass investment by the central government as well as impressive funding by clubs (just see the Guangzhou-backed facility in Qingyuan for evidence of this) and other organisations there is an attempt at something of a ‘grassroots revolution.’

Billions of dollars of are being spent at youth level as a host of top youth coaches flock to the country with an ambitious plan to have 50,000 football schools throughout the country in the next decade and with the sport now an established part of the primary school curriculum.

It’s here – in the shadows – away from the bright lights of big-money foreign signings and the roll call of failures by Team China that change is, and will, come.

The patience required may test many but if China sticks the course then within the next decade or so the fruits of that labour will start to be seen and then perhaps the results of the national team may start to match those of the leading club sides and China will be firmly established as one of Asia’s leading football nations.

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