Zheng bids to guide China out of ‘dark years’

Source:Agencies-Global Times Published: 2015-1-16 5:03:01

Title outsiders become talk of Asian Cup after two wins

Chinese captain Zheng Zhi controls the ball during their 2-1 win over Uzbekistan at the Asian Cup in Brisbane on Wednesday. Photo: CFP

Of all Chinese players at the Asian Cup, captain Zheng Zhi may be the most tired of hearing his nation described as the "sleeping giant" of world soccer.

The 34-year-old midfielder first made his mark in the national team as it surfed a wave of optimism in the wake of their first and only World Cup appearance at the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.

More than 12 years later, Zheng's dreams of playing in soccer's global showpiece are all but extinguished, with a succession of Chinese teams failing to deliver on the expectations brought by the country's economic might and 1.3 billion people.

Chronic underachievement

China claims modern-day soccer is derived from a Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) sport played over 2,000 years ago, but is less inclined to boast about its current standing in the game.

Chronic underachievement has been married with a string of match-fixing scandals in its professional leagues. Dozens of players, referees, club officials and senior administrators have been jailed for corruption in recent years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, an avowed soccer fan like hundreds of millions of his compatriots, has bemoaned the corruption-blighted local game as a national embarrassment.

Through it all, Zheng has soldiered on.

Zheng is the only player left from the squad that made the final of the 2004 Asian Cup on home soil where they lost to ­bitter rivals Japan.

The Beijing defeat was the trigger for a night of anti-Japan rioting by Chinese fans and a preview of the turmoil to follow.

Months later, China, coached by Dutchman Arie Haan, would crash out of qualification for the 2006 World Cup. Zheng would play a central role in the team's failure.

Needing to score two more goals than Kuwait to advance to the final round of Asian qualifying, China had to score eight in a match against Hong Kong after Kuwait trounced Malaysia 6-1.

China would win 7-0, with Zheng missing a 71st-minute spot kick.

Many Chinese fans, disillusioned by the country's hopelessly corrupt leagues, suspected the result, if not the entire qualifying phase, was fixed.

Zheng would feel the wrath of a disappointed public through another two failed World Cup campaigns and first-round exits at both the 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups - leaving aside other setbacks at Olympic and Asian Games.

Right direction

At the club level, however, Zheng is among China's rare success stories, a player who has broken into a big European league for more than a handful of games.

He made his English Premier League debut with ­Charlton Athletic in 2007 and would also spend a season with Scottish league giants Celtic before returning home to lead Guangzhou Evergrande.

Zheng's homecoming coincided with an upswing in China's domestic game, with property tycoons taking over clubs and spending fortunes to recruit foreign talent.

He was a driving force in Guangzhou's Asian Champions League triumph in 2012-13 and named the continent's Player of the Year in 2013.

The only player above 30 in China's Asian Cup squad, Zheng was recalled by French coach Alain Perrin last year to guide his youthful teammates in Australia.

Following a promising run of results in the lead-up, China has raised cautious optimism at home after winning their opening Group B match against Saudi Arabia 1-0.

And a 2-1 win over Uzbekistan on Wednesday took them to their first Asian Cup quarterfinal in 11 years.

The win means China are now certain to top Group B and will meet either South Korea or Australia in Brisbane in the quarterfinals on January 22.

"As you know after the World Cup, Chinese soccer suffered some dark years but I think after the year we had, the team has started heading in the right direction," Zheng said before the tournament.

Good luck

Fortune was on their side during their bumbled qualifying campaign. They only finished third in their group but snuck into the tournament as the very last team, by a single goal ahead of Lebanon.

For the tournament organizers, keen to cash in on the prospect of more than 1 billion TV viewers, it was already a major coup but few expected them to go far.

After being drawn with Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and North Korea, most experts thought they would fall short again. But after two matches the Chinese team are suddenly the talk of the tournament.

In their first match against Saudi Arabia, the Chinese goalkeeper Wang Dalei asked a young Australian ball boy which way he should dive to save a penalty.

The kid told him to go left and Wang followed his instructions and made the crucial save. Against Uzbekistan on Wednesday, they came from behind to win 2-1, sealed with a spectacular solo strike from substitute Sun Ke.

It might have only been a group match, but the team ­celebrated like they had won the final, dancing and ­singing in their locker rooms.

"We beat our ­opponents through spirit and stamina," said midfielder Wu Xi, who deflected the ball into his own net in the first half, then scored for his own team in the second.

"We will celebrate the Chinese way."

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