Underdog role set to suit China in World Cup qualifying

By Mark Dreyer Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/30 23:13:40

The third and final round of AFC qualifying for the 2018 World Cup gets underway on Thursday evening, as China play South Korea in Seoul.

The Seoul World Cup Stadium was where China played its third - and last - World Cup match in 2002, a 0-3 loss to Turkey, as China ended its one and only World Cup campaign without so much as a goal - but a lot has changed since then.

The Chinese Super League, for example, has seen a huge amount of investment over the past year, with the league's transfer record broken five times as foreign talent is imported to China, often paid on par with some of the top ­European leagues. Meanwhile, Chinese companies are investing in soccer globally at a pace that makes them the envy of the world, let alone Asia.

It's still unclear, though, how much of that investment is actually benefitting Chinese soccer.

The head-to-head record between China and South ­Korea makes for grim reading, with China winning just once in the past 30 encounters. But if Chinese fans are looking for omens, that 3-0 win came at the East Asian Football Cup in 2010, during current coach Gao Hongbo's first stint in charge of the team.

Eleven Koreans now play in the Chinese Super League, including four of the seven defenders on coach Uli Stielike's roster, but six of the Korean squad ply their trade in the more competitive environs of Europe, compared with just one for China - 19-year-old striker Zhang Yuning.

South Korean teams have won the Asian Champions League more times than any other country, but China's Guangzhou Evergrande boast two of the last three titles, with the team's 2013 triumph coming at the expense of FC Seoul in the final.

Striker Gao Lin who scored in the first leg of that final - which was held, coincidentally, at the Seoul World Cup Stadium - will line up for a Chinese side that is not expected to win Thursday, but could be ­supported by almost half of the 66,000 fans in attendance.

With just four of the 12 AFC teams remaining guaranteed to qualify for the finals in Russia, the odds are firmly with South Korea, who have played in every World Cup since 1986, to claim one of those spots.

Meanwhile, China, 30 ­places behind Korea at 78th in the FIFA rankings, go into this away game with nothing to lose. That, more than the ­money fueling the domestic game, makes them a very dangerous opponent.

Mark Dreyer is the editor of China Sports Insider. A former reporter at Sky Sports and Fox Sports, he regularly comments on China's sports industry in global media. dreyermark@gmail.com

Posted in: Soccer, Extra Time

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