Despite improved play in recent months by China’s beleaguered football team including a draw with Paraguay this week, the national coach has urged fans to lower expectations for next year’s Asian Cup.
In friendly tune-ups for the January tournament in Qatar, China lost to Iran 2-0 last week, but tied World Cup quarter-finalists Paraguay 1-1 on Tuesday in front of 30,000 fans in Nanjing.
Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios drew first blood in the opening minutes to give Paraguay a 1-0 lead, before China’s youthful striker Gao Lin headed home the equaliser in the 34th minute.
“Paraguay is a world-class team — we played well today and we succeeded in containing their attack,” coach Gao Hongbo said in post-match comments.
“It was not so important to win or lose this match. I am happy that everyone overcame the pressure and that we were able to play our game.”
Gao, who at 44 is the youngest man to coach China’s national side, has put together a string of impressive performances since assuming his post in May 2009.
China — who did not qualify for the World Cup in South Africa — shocked France 1-0 in a warm-up friendly, but in recent months Gao’s charges have beaten Asian rivals South Korea and battled to draws against Germany and Japan.
His only defeats have come against Portugal and Iran.
Still he cautioned against overconfidence and insists his only goal is to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“We have set our sights on the 2014 World Cup. The Asian Cup is only a warm-up for the World Cup,” Gao told state media.
“Chinese soccer has been on a downhill path over the past six years… people should lower their expectations.”
As the seventh man to take the helm in China since 2000, Gao was hired after the national side failed to qualify for South Africa and went winless in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Gambling, match-fixing, crooked referees and poor performances by the national team have made the sport the laughing stock of increasingly indifferent fans and a matter of mounting state concern.
China Football Association chief Nan Yong, his deputy Yang Yimin and another top aide were arrested on bribe-taking and match-fixing charges. Scores of officials and referees have been detained.
Nan served as CFA head for less than a year before he was arrested, reportedly for crimes that began early in his tenure at the association.
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