China are still a long way from the football superpower they crave to be, but under Li Tie they have offered a glimmer of hope to fans scarred by years of disappointment.
China have won four matches in a row with the former Everton midfielder as coach — albeit against lower-ranked opponents including minnows Guam and Maldives — and on Tuesday reached the decisive third stage of qualifying for the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
China may yet fail to make only a second World Cup finals appearance, but the 44-year-old Li turned around a qualifying campaign which was in big trouble when Italian World Cup-winner Marcello Lippi quit in November 2019 after defeat to Syria.
More than that, Li — who permanently succeeded Lippi in January last year — has got Chinese fans dreaming again.
“Chinese football has broken its promise countless times before,” journalist Ma Dexing, who has been following the national side for 30 years, wrote for Titan Sports.
“The team really deserves the pride of the Chinese people this time!”
Ma said that Li’s squad, who were bolstered by four naturalised players, deserved extra credit because they had come through a qualifying stage which was upended by the coronavirus.
China were supposed to host all four matches but after smashing Guam 7-0 they were forced to play the remaining three in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, following an 11th-hour change because of the pandemic.
Ma, who was in Sharjah, called this Chinese team more united than before and The Paper in Shanghai praised Li’s decisive decision-making.
Li, who previously worked as an assistant to Lippi and coached Chinese Super League side Wuhan Zall, has “high emotional intelligence”, The Paper said, and good man-management skills.
It cited how twice in press conferences he jumped to the defence of key forward Wu Lei, who appears to be out of favour at Spain’s Espanyol.
– Fragile confidence –
Li, who won more than 90 caps for China as a player, said after defeating group leaders Syria 3-1 on Tuesday that “we didn’t play at such a high level for quite a long time”.
Li wants to line up some high-quality opponents for friendlies before the next stage of qualifying, with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran among those also trying to reach the 2022 World Cup from Asia.
“Only by playing against strong teams can we really improve ourselves,” state media quoted him as saying.
China are ranked 77th in the world, sandwiched between Curacao and Panama, and have reached the World Cup only once. In 2002 they lost all three group games and failed to score a goal.
But under football-fan President Xi Jinping they have ambitions to host and even win a World Cup by 2050.
Beating Guam, Maldives, Philippines and Syria over the past fortnight, scoring 17 goals and conceding one, puts China nowhere near becoming world champions.
But recovering to reach the next stage of qualifying in style represents progress for a team long lambasted as a national embarrassment and who in the last couple of years lost at home to Uzbekistan and Thailand.
Underlining the intense interest in the national side, Li’s men were trending on the Twitter-like Weibo after the victory over Syria.
Soccer News was circumspect, however, saying reaching the third qualifying stage should be the norm for China and the real test is yet to begin.
Moreover, even against limited opposition, the centre of defence looked suspect, the newspaper warned.
“These games have indeed greatly improved the confidence of Chinese football in the short term,” it added.
“But what happens if the (next round) is a mess? Will the short-term confidence be easily lost?”