Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Experience Values Most for Chinese World Cup Debutants

The 44-year long wait for its World Cup appearance is over. China, the world's most populous nation, has finally reached the promised land of soccer.


The 44-year long wait for its World Cup appearance is over. China, the world's most populous nation, has finally reached the promised land of soccer.

Whatever the result at the World Cup is, China will go down the history.

"For the Chinese team, to reach the finals is by no means inferior to win the title. In this sense, China has won the World Cup," said China team coach Bora Milutinovic.

An impressive qualifying run, especially the second phase of six victories, one draw and one defeat, has lifted Chinese people' s expectation on the national team's World Cup debut. They hope the "magic" Milutinovic can help this side take another giant leap at the finals -- moving beyond the group stage where they face Brazil, Costa Rica and Turkey.

After all, he has guided Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and Nigeria into the second round of past World Cup finals.

But Milutinovic, knowing the importance of a relaxed atmosphere for his psychologically weak squad, is very careful not to pull excess pressure upon his players.

"It does no good to us always talking about getting to the second round, because China is not a strong team," said the 58- year-old Yugoslav.

Though China is not fancied to make the last 16, Milutinovic believe his fifth World Cup team has the potential to pose some trouble to those vastly stronger oppositions.

"We have our own advantages. We are physically and tactically strong," he said.

"If we play the way we played in the second phase of the qualifiers, we are very likely to spring a few upsets," he said.

In the second round of Asian qualifiers, the Chinese side displayed consistency and confidence sorely lacking in the past to secure their berth in the finals with two games left to play, scoring 13 goals and conceding only two.

Sceptics, however, say that China was little tested in the qualifiers as main rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan either were drawn in the other group or went through automatically as hosts.

The team's sloppy performance in the build-up to the finals cast even more worries over their World Cup showing.

Apart from a 3-1 victory against minnows Thailand, China's warm-up run has seen a goal drought, with a 0-0 draw against arch-rival South Korea followed by three straight losses -- an identical 2-0 defeat to both Uruguay and Portugal and a 1-0 loss to first division Dutch side Eindhoven.

But Milutinovic reiterated that the results of warm-ups were of little importance.

"Results of friendlies don't account too much," the headstrong coach said. "If we can win a match in the World Cup, it doesn't matter losing the friendlies."

The key for China will be holding to a much defensive plan.
The Chinese back line is anchored by veteran Fan Zhiyi, who had a successful career at English first division side Crystal Palace and Dundee of the Scottish Premiership before returning to China earlier this year.

Sun Jihai, the only Chinese player headed for English Premier League with the newly-promoted Manchester City, is also the core of defense.

Defensive midfielder Li Tie, described as "irreplaceable" by Milutinovic for his inexhaustible runs and gritty defense, will play a pivotal role.

Up front, China will rely on Hao Haidong, one of the best strikers in Asia, and Eintracht Frankfurt's Yang Chen. Qi Hong, China's top scorer in the qualifiers with four goals, lurks behind them.

Despite boasting some talented players, as Milutinovic believes, Chinese soccer has a long way to match the nation's reputation of strong sporting powers.

"It's almost impossible that the Chinese team enter the second round, I think, what is more important is to gain experience," he added.

Apparently, success is only taken step by step.

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