Young players key to China's campaign in World Cup Asian qualifiers
Published: Jun 30, 2024 10:34 PM
Baihelamu Abuduwaili Photo:IC

Baihelamu Abuduwaili Photo:IC

The third-round draw of the FIFA 2026 World Cup Asian qualifiers have placed China in Group C alongside with Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Indonesia, a group that many Chinese fans see as a "group of death" for the Chinese players.

However, with a change in mindset, the third round of qualifiers could be seen as "China's World Cup." Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia all participated in the 2022 World Cup, with Japan and Australia advancing to the round of 16. This group offers a rare opportunity for the Chinese team to compete against top-tier teams.

Chinese soccer players will gain invaluable experience by playing home-and-away matches against three World Cup participants, especially after a disappointing group stage elimination at the Asian Cup in January 2024, where the team failed to score a goal in three matches. 

Facing such strong opponents, including two round-of-16 participants and Saudi Arabia - the only team to defeat the 2022 champions Argentina - could bolster the confidence of Chinese players even if they manage only a draw.

Since the end of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the Chinese national team has emphasized the need for rejuvenation. However, the transition has been slow, with the second-round 36-team qualifiers series showing little progress. 

If China dares to field younger players, as they did in the away match against South Korea in mid-June, it could benefit the new generation of Chinese soccer players. Even in the face of consecutive defeats, the efforts of head coach Branko Ivankovic to leave behind a talented pool of players would be commendable.

Young players like 23-year-old Baihelamu Abuduwaili, along with Zhu Chenjie and Jiang Shenglong, who were born in 2000, will mature significantly through this World Cup qualifying campaign. By the time the 2030 World Cup qualifiers come around, they could represent the most confident generation of Chinese soccer players, offering renewed hope for a World Cup berth.

Compared with the time when China was pushing for the 2022 Qatar World Cup qualification, the atmosphere has changed significantly. Back then, there was a frenzy driven by the return of famed Italian coach Marcello Lippi in 2019 among other preparations. However, the result was a huge disappointment, culminating in the historic defeat to Vietnam on February 1, 2022.

Today, the landscape is different. The fact that China has reached the 18-team qualifiers has tempered expectations. With little of the previous overconfidence, the focus is now on realistic goals.

With the top two teams of each group qualifying directly for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the third- and fourth-placed teams advancing to the fourth round, the current round of Asian qualifiers offer China an opportunity to gain confidence. 

For the first match, against Japan on away soil, Ivankovic still has over two months to get to know more domestic young players as the Chinese Super League is in full swing. Ultimately, these qualifiers could be a turning point for Chinese soccer.

Emphasizing youth over immediate results may not yield instant success, but it helps set the foundation for a stronger team in the future. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.