Even if Japan and the Republic of Korea are knocked out when they play Croatia and Brazil respectively for a position in the final eight of the 2022 Qatar World Cup on Monday, their dazzling performances in the group games－Japan defeated Germany and Spain, and the ROK beat Portugal with a winning goal in the added time－have already awakened Chinese soccer fans to how big the gap is between the two teams and the Chinese national team.
Their victory does not come from good luck but the remarkable progress they have made. With almost all their main players playing in Europe－Takehiro Tomiyasu, who plays for English Premier League leader Arsenal, being a case in point－a world-class youth training system, a sizable base to choose young talents and a mature professional league match system, the two countries both enjoy a strong platform on which to build a competitive national team.
China has none of these, although its players' incomes were many times higher than their Japanese and ROK counterparts for many years before the country's real estate industry bubble burst, which forced Chinese soccer to endure cold turkey as the hot money from the industry disappeared.
Before that, to catch up with the two neighbors in soccer, China naturalized several foreign players with exorbitant input of money in the hope that they could secure an entry ticket to the World Cup in Qatar this year.
However, that simply didn't work as the naturalized players were quickly institutionalized by their teammates in speed, confidence, technique and match IQ. One year after their employer, a real estate tycoon from Guangzhou, Guangdong province, became mired in financial difficulties, all of them have gone back home.
The irony is that while Japan and the ROK have earned respect on the field in Qatar, the former coach of the Chinese national team, Li Tie, along with several players, is being investigated for suspected corruption and cheating, and there will be many others having sleepless nights because of that.
Every remark Li made to urge the nation to have confidence in Chinese coaches after he succeeded Italian coach Marcello Lippi when the latter quit his job coaching the Chinese national team has come back to haunt and humiliate Chinese soccer.
Although China accounts for nearly one-fifth of the world population, the number of its registered football players is only counted in thousands, less than half that of Iceland, a country with a population of 370,000. Even these limited number of Chinese players are aging quickly. There is not enough fresh blood being injected. Only the children who have given up studies are encouraged to practice sports.
What reason on earth is there for the nation to pin its hope on them winning the country honor and respect on the soccer field? China needs an overhaul of its soccer system to rebuild people's confidence in the sport.