While it may be one of football's biggest underachievers, China’s national team is the envy of Asia in terms of preparation for the 2022 World Cup.
Serious resources are being poured into qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Qatar, which will mark the 20th anniversary of China’s first and, to date, only appearance at FIFA’s premier event.
China kicks off the third round of qualification on Sept. 2 against Australia and then meets Japan five days later. Both those teams were unbeaten and topped their groups in the second round, while China had its struggles before advancing.
Because of travel restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic and strict quarantine rules for anyone entering China, the games against Australia and Japan will take place in Qatar.
China’s scheduled home qualifiers in October and November against Vietnam, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Australia may also be held in the 2022 World Cup host nation.
Head coach Li Tie has already worked that possibility into his planning.
“I have made preparations for being unable to return to China for three months,” Li told a news conference earlier this week in Shanghai, where the squad held an 11-day training camp before leaving for West Asia on Thursday. “I have told the players that if any of them cannot bear it, they should tell me now.
"I will support whatever decisions they make now, but they cannot tell me that they cannot stand it in the heat of our qualification campaign.”
It is easier for China's squad than many of its rivals to set up an international base because the roster is made up almost entirely of players from domestic clubs, apart from attacker Wu Lei of Espanyol in Spain. Also, the Chinese Super League has been suspended mid-season from Aug. 15 to Dec. 1 to free up players for national team commitments.
There will be no such freedom for Australia and Japan, which call on players from clubs all over Europe and Asia. Both countries face challenges in trying to select their star players on three separate occasions for qualifiers in September, October and November.
Li, who played more than 90 games for his country and appeared at the 2002 World Cup, knows that China’s history in qualification means even with such preparations, few at home expect a winning start in the group.
“Our players won’t believe me even if I tell them we can beat Japan and Australia, because they lack confidence," Li said. "Few of them had winning experiences at this stage of the qualification. They need victories to build confidence.”
Li signed a contract extension this week that will keep him in the job until 2026, when the World Cup expands from 32 to 48 teams and Asia is expected to double its allocation of automatic places from four to eight. He knows that in soccer, bringing success to China is a long-term job.
“Our national team is like the son of a family. He needs more support and encouragement from parents," Li said. "Sometimes he may do badly in exams or be mischievous, but he’s still our son. We can’t just abandon him because of bad exam results.”