Jankovic’s reign starts but CFA senior teams lack experience
Published: Feb 26, 2023 10:44 PM
Illustration: Hang Dachuan/Global Times

Illustration: Hang Dachuan/Global Times

Serbian Aleksandar Jankovic has been named as the head coach of China's men's national team by the Chinese Football Association (CFA), but expectations are not high as an anti-corruption campaign is underway within the CFA.

The 50-year-old Serbian will make his debut on March 23 when China plays a friendly match against New Zealand in Auckland. However, the main tests of his tenure will be the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and 2026 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers.

China is no stranger to nominate foreigners as head coach for the national team, especially after Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic led China to qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the only time that China made it into the sport's world championship. 

The past two decades have seen several foreign coaches, including Arie Haan of the Netherlands, Jose Antonio Camacho of Spain, Alain Perrin of France and Marcello Lippi of Italy, dominate the reins of the men's national team, with foreign coaches' reputation and achievements overshadowing their Chinese domestic counterparts even though no silverware have been won.

Before taking charge of the Chinese national team, Jankovic - who had spells with several European clubs such as Red Star Belgrade of Serbia and Standard Liege of Belgium - started his stint with China by taking the helm of the under-19 team in September 2018. Later he led a mostly under-23 squad to the East Asian championship in Japan in July 2022, where his team finished third in the four-team tournament.

The senior team, languishing in 80th place in the global rankings, sits in 11th place in the Asian Football Confederation-governing region, which is expected to have eight direct slots for the expanded 2026 FIFA World Cup. However, the prospects of Jankovic leading China to qualify for the 48-team world championship are dim. 

Look at the record of youth teams in China and it might tell you why the senior team has such an underachieving record. The national under-23 team, which did not qualify for the most recent 2022 Asian under-23 tournament, lost 11 of its 12 matches in the regional championship in four group-stage-exit tournaments. 

The national under-20 team has not qualified for the FIFA Youth World Cup once since 2005, a time considered the peak of the team as it reached the last 16 in the 32-team competition. The under-20 team's record in Asia remains mediocre as they have not qualified beyond the quarterfinals since 2004, with the most recent two editions seeing them get eliminated in the group stage. 

The under-17 team's result is also far from satisfying. Since their last appearance at the biennial event in 2014, when they set a group stage exit for an embarrassing fourth time in a row, the national under-17 team has maintained a bleak history at international competitions, only qualifying for the regional competition in 2023.

Compare to China's continued lack of achievements, other senior Asian teams, such as Japan, Qatar and Vietnam, have been improving thanks to their youth teams' progress in younger player tournaments, which have allowed them to gain valuable experience.

Chinese fans are passionate about the sport, as can be seen in their enthusiasm during the 2022 FIFA World Cup though China did not participate. However, the men's national teams continue to let fans down. With the senior China team struggling to make itself in the top eight in Asia and no obvious prospects to invigorate the team, it would be wishful thinking to predict Jankovic's tenure can be successful. 

The past decade has witnessed millions of dollars being spent on the national senior team. Spending a similar amount of money on youth squad improvement may not result in an immediate success, but makes for a more prospective outcome in the long run.