BEIJING • Chinese fans have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of the president of China's football association after the national side crashed to a shock defeat by Syria, in a major blow to President Xi Jinping's football revolution.
The leader, described as a dedicated football fan by the media in the country, has vowed to turn China into a men's footballing superpower.
Thousands of football academies are being built across the country in a bid to nurture a new generation of world-beating players.
And massive pay packets are being used to draw foreign coaches and players from footballing nations such as Brazil in order to beautify the still dismal Chinese game.
But Mr Xi's ambitious plans to qualify for, host and eventually win a World Cup were dented on Thursday, when China lost 0-1 to Syria in a 2018 World Cup qualifier at home.
Forty-thousand fans had packed the Zhuque Stadium in the northern city of Xi'an to see China, ranked 78th in the world by Fifa, take on footballing minnows Syria, in 114th place, just ahead of Turkmenistan, Lithuania, Palestine and North Korea.
The Global Times, a Communist party-run tabloid, said China's players dominated possession. But, in the second half, the home side were "stunned" by a goal from Mahmoud Al-Mawas, meaning China's chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia are now "slim".
They have just one point from their first three games in Group A. Syria are fourth with four points, while Iran top the group with seven points.
Xinhua, Beijing's official news agency, admitted that the result left China on "the edge of elimination" from the qualifying campaign.
"Seriously, the performance of China's national team was that of an amateur side," Dong Lu, a television sports commentator, wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter.
The Tencent Sports website said large groups of disgruntled fans gathered outside the stadium following the game to demand that Cai Zhenhua, the president of the Chinese Football Association and a former top paddler, be axed.
"Cai Zhenhua, resign!" they chanted, according to video of the demonstration.
Fans also used social media to voice their disgust.
"Last night Syria, a country which has been suffering wars for many years, whose manager earns just 2,000 yuan (S$412) each month, defeated China whose players earn millions of yuan. It is time for China's national football team to have a good think," one critic wrote on Weibo.
Another commented: "China's national team couldn't even beat the Syrian football team which is suffering from a situation of extreme instability.
"There is no longer any need for China's national team to exist. It is a waste of taxpayer's money."
Some disillusioned fans even called for China's manager, Gao Hongbo, to be sacked and replaced with Lang Ping, the revered coach of China's female volleyball team.
Lang cemented her position as a national treasure when she led her team to gold at the Rio Olympics.
Following Thursday's defeat, senior members of China's sports establishment conceded such glories remained out of reach for the country's football team.
Yu Hongchen, the vice-dean of China's football management centre, said the Chinese players had been left "heartbroken" by the loss to Syria.
"Our players played hard," he said, according to the Sina Sports website. "But the result is unacceptable."
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE