One of the most humiliating memories for China’s national football team was its loss in 1985 to Hong Kong in the World Cup qualifiers. After losing 2-1 in front of 80,000 at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium, China could no longer qualify for the finals in Mexico the following year. Fans were so distraught that there were protests in the capital’s streets.
So when China and Hong Kong were paired in the same group for the World Cup qualifiers again this month, many fans welcomed the chance to avenge the defeat.
Bhutan, the Maldives and Qatar also join the group, in a line-up that gives China a great chance of moving into the next round. Ultimately four or five Asian countries will qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Chinese fans were excited about the draw – and not just because the team has dodged more formidable rivals. There is also the view that travelling to matches has become more a lot more appealing. “Two are shopping paradises (Hong Kong and Qatar), the other has an unrivalled view of the sea (the Maldives) while one (Bhutan) is the perfect spiritual destination… Travel agents should push for holiday packages that cover these destinations,” one netizen enthused.
Modern Express published a guide on what to do in each of the destinations, including a visit to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan and scuba diving in Male, while China News Net ran an article about the climates of each country to prepare fans for their trips to the away games.
Sports reporters also looked forward to covering the matches. “All these years of travelling near and far with the national team have paid off. I can’t wait to go to ‘work’,” one soccer scribe told NetEase, a portal.
Will the matches turn out to be walkovers for the Chinese team? An online poll saw 70% of netizens describe the draw as “very favourable” to China’s prospects of reaching the finals in Russia.
“No matter how you look at it, there is no reason for China not to be able to advance to the next round,” claimed one fan, noting that Bhutan sits at the very bottom of FIFA’s world rankings.
China ranks 82nd in the rankings, ahead of its group rivals.
China was handed an apparently easy group in 2004 too, drawing Hong Kong, Malaysia and Kuwait. In the last game it needed to beat Hong Kong by eight goals to qualify. Although it won 7:0, China still went out on goal difference.
“Please learn how to do the maths this time,” the Nanfang Daily pleaded.
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