“Football, bloody hell!” was Alex Ferguson’s delighted response when Manchester United pulled off a last-gasp Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999.
This year Leicester City have been reminding us that anything is possible in professional football. In August they were priced at 5000-1 to win the English Premier League. A few months on they lead the title race by seven points with seven games to spare – and the odds of their triumph are now about evens.
Anyone who made that bet last August would have been viewed by their friends as delusional. And truth be told, diehard Chinese fans looking to wager a similar bet on their countrymen winning the 2018 World Cup will strike many as outright lunatics. Indeed, most bookies aren’t even offering the option (the longest odds from Ladbrokes are for Northern Ireland to lift the trophy, at 2,500-1).
Despite being a much-remarked ambition of Xi Jinping, the chances of China winning the World Cup were slimmer than ever late last year, following a pair of damaging scoreless draws with Hong Kong. China’s national team was as good as eliminated from the qualifiers. Going into the final match with Qatar, which was top of China’s group after winning all seven of their previous games, China needed not only to win. It also required setbacks for teams in other qualifying groups so it could go through to the next phase as one of the four best-placed runners-up.
Somehow, the Chinese managed to beat the Qataris 2-0 at home. It was just one of a set of surprise results: Oman defeated Iran, Jordan was thrashed by Australia and, most astonishingly, North Korea lost 3-2 to the footballing minnows of the Philippines.
This unexpected sequence of events means that China have made it through to the final qualifying round for the first time since 2002.
“A miracle should not have been needed,” the People’s Daily scolded on its website, referring to China’s failure to score against Hong Kong for 180 minutes. “But this time, we finally believe that ‘anything is possible’.”
Football fans in Hong Kong – many of whom delighted in derailing China’s qualifying campaign – were less excited by the news. “Is it possible for North Korea to ship three goals against the Philippines?” one wrote, echoing the conspiracy theory that North Korea had given its socialist comrade a helping hand (which sounds unlikely if the reports about Pyongyang’s changing mood to the Chinese are accurate; see page 8).
“Why are so many Chinese laughing and crying? I thought China has just won the World Cup,” another Hong Kong fan scowled in an online discussion forum. The instant reply from a more patriotic fan: “If you hate the Chinese football team so much, why do you pay any attention to the World Cup qualifiers at all?” Back at home, Chinese football fans were even ready to overlook maritime tensions to thank the Filipinos for their unexpected contribution.
“Their president often tussles with China over islands and reefs in the South China Sea, annoying China to no end,” noted Liu Zhuming, a current affairs columnist. But “within the context of China’s arduous progression into the next qualifying round, the Philippines can be considered a ‘true friend’.”
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