China's FA chief rallies players

Under-fire Cai Zhenhua urges team to believe they can still qualify for 2018 World Cup

BEIJING • The chief of China's football association has told the country's players not to lose their confidence, after the team's embarrassing loss to war-torn Syria jeopardised hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup Finals.

The national side's 1-0 defeat on Thursday before a crowd of 40,000 in Xi'an had enraged fans, spurring many to call for the sacking of China's FA president Cai Zhenhua.

But he has ignored the calls, and sought to reassure China's players they "absolutely must not lose confidence because of this loss", the Xin Kuaibao reported yesterday.

"We still have seven games, you must bring out your fighting spirit. Especially at times like this (after a loss), you mustn't give up," he said.

The FA said it would not be making further comment on the defeat.

The national team wrote a message after the Syria loss on their official Weibo social media account thanking fans for their "unending cheers" and "fighting by our side".

TIME TO FIGHT BACK

We still have seven games, you must bring out your fighting spirit. Especially at times like this (after a loss), you mustn't give up.

CAI ZHENHUA, China's FA president, to his players, who have a point from three games in the final round of Asian qualifiers.

"You are our pride, and to all our fans who came out yesterday, we'd sincerely like to say we're grateful we have you, thanks for all your trouble," they said on Friday.

"With you there, we can face every defeat, and we can overcome every setback. Keep your head up, we'll continue the struggle."

China's beleaguered fans have a well-developed sense of humour about the travails of their national side, who are ranked 78th in the world and have failed to qualify for the World Cup since their only appearance in 2002.

In that outing China failed to even score, but under President Xi Jinping - a big football fan - the country has set its sights on hosting and eventually winning a World Cup.

Fans dryly noted that, while China paid players lavishly, the 114th-ranked Syrian side had flown in on a commercial jet with four layovers, paid their coach 2,000 yuan (S$412) per month, and lost many players who had fled the country's violence in the past five years.

Others joked in an article circulated on WeChat social media that, if fans had bet 1,000 yuan against China every match since 1990, they would now have 4.59 million yuan, better than investing in stocks or bonds.

Though the Syria loss hurt their chances, China remain in the running to reach Russia 2018.

They have a point from three Group A games - six points behind leaders Iran - and face Uzbekistan, third with six points, on Tuesday.

The top two in Group A and B qualify directly for the World Cup while the third-placed teams meet to decide who goes into a play-off for another place at the Finals.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'China's FA chief rallies players'. Print Edition | Subscribe