It was 20 years ago when China made its first appearance at football’s World Cup finals. That’s still the only time the world’s most populous nation has qualified for the final stages of the tournament. The task was less challenging at the time because the strongest Asian teams South Korea and Japan were co-hosts and didn’t need to take part in the qualifiers for the tournament.
The World Cup finals are back next year in Qatar. Hopes were high that China might make an appearance, as the Chinese squad was thought to be getting more competitive, with a stronger domestic league and a national team supposedly strengthened by the addition of a number of naturalised players from overseas.
Hope is a dangerous thing, however. With four rounds of matches still to play, the Chinese team has been assigned a zero chance of qualifying for the finals, according to statistics specialists We Global Football, which puts China in the same company as soccer minnows such as the Cook Islands and Samoa.
China needs to finish at least third in a qualifying group featuring Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, Oman and Vietnam. Despite hard-fought draws with Oman and Australia in the past week (both matches finished 1-1) the Chinese side has only collected five points from a possible 18, leaving it second bottom in the group.
Saudi Arabia tops the group with 16 points; Japan is second with 12 points; while Australia has 11. The top two qualify automatically for Qatar while the third-placed team will need to negotiate a play-off with a team from the other Asian qualifying group. To stand a chance, China needs to win all four of its remaining matches, while one of Saudi Arabia, Japan or Australia must lose all of theirs. In short, it’s extremely unlikely to happen.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has taken this qualifying campaign very seriously, so much so that no matches in the Chinese Super League (CSL) have been played since September. The plan is for the top players to concentrate solely on winning for the motherland. Critics say the CFA’s tactics have backfired, by disrupting the match sharpness of the Chinese players. Strict quarantine controls in China have also forced the team to play most of its ‘home’ matches in a neutral stadium in the United Arab Emirates.
The latest setbacks have seen local onlookers poke fun at the Chinese side once again (the national team has long been a source of black humour). “Over the years I’ve learned not to pin hopes on two things: the Chinese national football team and the A-share market,” one fan wrote on WeChat.
“Look on the bright side: we will be the first team to start preparations for the 2026 World Cup finals,” another wrote. “And there will be 48 places up for grabs [from 32 in Qatar].”
That last comment has some merit. Indeed, one theory in soccer circles is that football governing body FIFA pushed to expand the number of places to 48 to make absolutely sure that China – with its massive viewership and huge commercial opportunities – reaches the tournament finals on a regular basis.
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