Up the Orient

China could qualify for the World Cup, and Haydn Parry credits their success to their surprise training schedule in England

A balmy morning in Mitcham, deepest South London, and the air is punctuated by coarse groans in Cantonese. This is the training ground of Crystal Palace, the latest stop in a very low profile, ten-day tour of England by the International squad of the People’s Republic of China. The game behind closed doors is not going well – two-nil down at halftime to a fresh faced bunch of ‘Eaglets’ keen to impress Steve Coppell, who is pacing the sidelines.

China has one fifth of the world’s population but they have always struggled to assemble a decent squad of footballers. Until now, as, for the first time in fifteen years, qualification for the World Cup Finals is a distinct possibility – and the reason for the side’s ascendance owes a great deal to the influence of the English game.

“Nine months ago I didn’t think that they would have a chance, and I don’t think they did either. Then, of course, we went into six World Cup qualifying games and won five and drew one. So the expectation all of a sudden is quite high and certainly they have learnt from the experience so far and improved a great deal. It hasn’t taken miracles – they just needed a bit of organizing.” So says Ted Buxton, whose career as coach and scout has taken him from Millwall to Tampa Bay, Priestfield to Wembley, but even he is surprised to find himself in charge of China. Especially as his only previous encounter with the Chinese FA involved some distinctly undiplomatic comments about the laughable state of the pitch of the Workers’ Stadium prior to England’s 3-0 win in Beijing last May. He thought nothing more of the polite enquiries about his availability after Euro 96 – until the phone call came offering him the post of technical advisor to the national squad.

Under Buxton’s guidance, the Chinese have blossomed. Cast aside any clichéd notions of a team of Dennis Wise-sized defenders. (As the technical advisor put it more bluntly in the past, “the idea that they are all a bunch of midgets is bollocks.”) The current Chinese squad look mean and imposing and have begun to acquire a bit of steel and directness in their play. There are mumbles of approval from the sidelines as English opponents are clattered by overzealous challenges in the closing moments of the half. It takes the intervention of Ray Wilkins, now assistant coach at Palace, to point out that they’re a tad out of order and it would be wise to calm down a bit.

They are also more than willing to work hard, something Ted hasn’t always found with English players: “Absolutely – they are very dedicated and very fit and they never moan. I try to relax them when I can. I put an arm around the shoulder and tell them how good they are. I think they have responded to that because they never get any praise in China.” Eliminating Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Tajikistan isn’t likely to cause international shock waves, but getting this far represents an achievement for a country that hasn’t come close to World Cup qualification since losing to New Zealand in a play-off for the Asian place at the 1982 Finals.

On the current tour, which has acted as warm-up to the second round of qualifiers, they’ve disposed of Nottingham Forest (2-0), Chelsea (2-1) and Charlton (4-2). They’ve also passed an examination of temperament in a heated physical battle against an Arsenal XI (0-0), which was ended ten minutes from time to avoid a diplomatic incident.

That they can look after themselves on the pitch is obvious in the game against Palace. At a time when the purists bemoan the breakneck speed and physical presence needed for players to compete in the Premiership, it’s interesting to discover that such an approach has worked wonders for the Chinese game.

Many Asian sides in the past have shown technical brilliance that can match anything Europe has to offer, but all too often it’s been coupled with over-elaboration. Another traditional weakness in the past has been between the posts. The goalkeeping staff on the current squad ranges from the gigantic Fu Binn to the 5’ 8’’ Ou Chulaing. Somewhere in between in height, though way out in front in girth, is a puffing, red-faced Englishman.

Jimmy “I don’t recognize myself these days” Rimmer is the goalkeeping coach, brought in to revolutionize training methods that used to consist of 30 minutes of goalward punts from the penalty spot. He welcomes the test the tour presents for his charges. “It’s tough out there – but there’s tougher. They are a nation that desperately wants to do well at football because they have mastered most other sports. Technique wise they cannot be faulted – but for now they must learn and learn. And that’s why we’re here.”

Palace boss Steve Coppell isn’t surprised by the way China has benefited from hiring Buxton and Rimmer and concentrating on the tactical and physical aspects of the game. “I think it’s typical of what China has done in many sports. Look back to what they did in basketball in the Olympics. They are fast learners. And you don’t think of the Chinese as a tall race and yet now they have found the players. Here they’ve brought over some fine physical specimens. They’re all very quick too, with good speed of thought. It is obvious that now they are getting more professional in outlook, preparation and the way they approach games.”

That started with the creation of the professional Marlboro League three years ago which has meant a definite rise in playing standards – and attracted corporate sponsorship, as well as the services of a number of journeyman players from Europe and South America. Now it might not be so long before top players, such as Hao Hai Dong and Xhang Nenhua, start heading West. The Chinese FA has made some muted noises about players being permitted exit visas should the national side make it to France 98. Steve Coppell makes no secret of his admiration of the pick of the current squad, Fan Zhiyi, the captain of Shanghai who can now command wages of £75,000 a year.

Fan is one of several subs introduced in the Palace friendly as the Chinese revert to what is more-or-less their first eleven. The change in fortunes is marked as the the Eagles are roasted with a five goal salvo in the second half. Final score 5-2 and an unbeaten record on tour maintained.

The World Cup trail resumes on 13th September with the second round of qualification, starting at home to Iran in the north-east coastal city of Dalian. Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also stand in the way of automatic qualification. Even if that isn’t achieved there’s always the possibility of a play-off, against Australia, and Buxton’s erstwhile boss Terry Venables.

Both Rimmer and Buxton acknowledge that Sod’s Law and the strength of the Saudis dictate that this is the likeliest outcome. They were hired with qualification for the Korea/Japan finals of 2002 in mind – now the ambitions for the side have changed with form and Buxton is keen for his charges to stay realistic: “It would be tremendous to qualify for next summer but, knowing the Chinese, they will then expect to win the World Cup. I’ve kept saying to the players that just to get there would be a great achievement. Then China would really be set up in footballing terms.”

From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month