Fading World Cup hopes a rude awakening for China's soccer dream

Wed Oct 12, 2016 5:28am EDT
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By Adam Jourdan

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's ambitions to become a global soccer power are facing a stark reality check after the national team's coach stepped down following defeats to Uzbekistan and war-torn Syria, leaving in tatters a bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Chinese coach Gao Hongbo resigned after a 2-0 defeat to Uzbekistan on Tuesday night in Tashkent, days after losing to Syria. The slump underlines the challenge facing President Xi Jinping, who wants China to host - and win - the World Cup.

With Xi's blessing, China had been in a bullish soccer mood. It invested billions of dollars to develop grassroots soccer academies, brought high-profile players and managers into China from overseas, and is buying into global soccer assets from Italian club Inter Milan to England's Manchester City.

Beijing wants China to compete with the best teams in the world by 2050, while investors like Inter Milan's new Chinese owner Suning Commerce Group talk about setting global soccer supply chains from clubs to media outlets and merchandising deals.

But many sports industry insiders question whether China can live up its bold ambitions.

"The massive investment in football, and in particular President Xi's personal involvement, has raised expectations to wholly unrealistic levels," said Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based founder of sports information website China Sports Insider.

China, ranked 78th in the world behind St. Kitts and Nevis and Libya, has qualified just once for the World Cup finals. That was in 2002, when the team lost all three games without scoring a goal.

"This isn't going to change for years, and no coach - foreign or otherwise - can perform the sort of miracles that would be needed, no matter what Chinese fans or President Xi might expect," Dreyer added.   Continued...

Football Soccer - China v Syria - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Asia Zone - Round 3 Group A - Xi'an, China - 6/10/16 - Team China listen to national anthem behind a Chinese national flag ahead of the match. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo