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Friday, December 02, 2022

Olympics distract from Chinese soccer’s puzzling predicament

One good outcome for men’s soccer in China is the timing of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which has been a national distraction from another failed World Cup qualifying campaign.

For now.

But after the Winter Games close on Sunday, soccer’s global soccer showpiece events will again become big talking points among Chinese sports fans — particularly the vastly different performances of the men’s and women’s national teams.

The history of the Chinese men’s national team is littered with disappointment and failure, feelings that are heightened when the women’s team is successful. Rarely has the contrast been as great as it is now.

The chances of the men’s team qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar officially ended Feb. 1 in a 3-1 loss to Vietnam. Five days later, the women’s national team secured a spot in the 2023 World Cup, to be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, with a stirring 3-2 comeback win over South Korea in the final of the Asian Cup in India. The Beijing Olympics started in between.

When the champion women’s players returned to start 21 days of quarantine, they were greeted in the city of Suzhou with fans holding banners with the message: “You can always trust Chinese women’s soccer.”

Similar messages have appeared in newspapers and across social media since the win.

“There has always been so much pressure on the Chinese men’s national team and the women winning is going to only step up that pressure,” Tom Byer,a former advisor to China’s Ministry of Education and Sport, told The Associated Press.

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The men’s team has one win and two draws from eight games in the last round of Asian qualifying for the World Cup, with two matches still to play next month and no chance of making it to Qatar.

In contrast, the way the women qualified for 2023, winning their ninth Asian title — and first since 2006 — was especially satisfying for supporters. The so-called Steel Roses were 2-0 down to South Korea at halftime when coach Shui Qingxia made a bold substitution and replaced star player Wang Shuang with Zhang Yanlin, who inspired a comeback victory that was clinched with almost the last kick of the game .

Shui, who won the title five times as a player, is now the toast of Chinese soccer. The next step is to challenge the best in the world next year.

“We will try our best to catch up with Europe and the United States,” Shui said. “Winning the championship will definitely increase self confidence. China Women’s football has fighting ability and fighting spirit, but only by improving mentally, physically, technically and tactically, as well as physical fitness, can we go further.”

There is less optimization in the men’s game, which is struggling domestically as well as internationally. The 2021 Chinese Super League season was overshadowed by financial issues. Jiangsu FC, the then defending champion, ceased operations as part of a cost-cutting drive by its owners.

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This came after years of famous foreign players and coaches signing for clubs in the league, making the CSL the biggest spending in the world for a time in 2016-17.

There was also massive investment in youth development with one of the biggest projects being Evergrande’s academy in Guangzhou. It was noted that Zhang Linyan, who scored for China in the women’s Asian Cup final, is a graduate of the school while there has been no male student to have similar success.

China’s only appearance at the men’s World Cup was in 2002, when it was staged in Asia for the first time and co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.

Byer, a specialist youth coach, believes that development of the men’s national team should start by concentrating on success at underage tournaments and, for now, forget World Cups.

“The focus needs to be taken off the men’s senior team and put on what’s happening at the younger ages,” Byer said, who pointed to various Asian youth competitions that have been stepping stones for the women to their current success. “China needs to start doing well in the Asian Under-16 tournaments like the women do. There is no shortcut.”

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More Associated Press soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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