Chinese soccer teams feel the weight of expectation

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As part of the continuing effort to rebuild the image of the sport, Chinese soccer authorities spelled out their expectations for the national teams on Monday.

Foremost among them was the call for the men's senior team to at least reach the knockout round of the Asian Cup in January.

"Chinese soccer has suffered unprecedented image destruction and credibility deterioration due to its consecutive bribery scandals, and the national teams' plummeting performance is nearly intolerable in such a sports powerhouse," said Wei Di, China's soccer chief.

"The cruel reality demands that we be fully prepared for the 2012 Olympic Games and 2014 World Cup."

Other national teams also learned what was expected of them, with the women's team receiving a target of a gold medal at the Guangzhou Asian Games in November.

"The men's team aims to enter the 2014 World Cup finals," said Cao Jingwei, head of the management department of national teams. "The squad will examine itself by playing in the Asian Cup and also hold the target of advancing to the knockout phase with the hope of moving into the semifinals."

China has reason to hope going into the Asian Cup in Qatar. Under the guidance of head coach Gao Hongbo, its world ranking climbed from 108th in May 2009 to 82nd this month, reaching a high of 77th in August.

Gao, who took charge of the national team in May 2009, has a record of 12 wins, 10 draws and three losses in 25 official matches. He also led the team to first place in this year's East Asian Football Championship, including a 3-0 victory over South Korea that ended a 32-year barren streak against its regional rival.

"The main responsibility of this national team is to create a blueprint of the style for Chinese soccer," the coach said. "It will provide guidance for the training of young players."

The men's Under-23 team, meanwhile, was tasked with finishing in the top eight in the Asian Games and qualifying for the London Olympics.

Referring to the long-term targets of the national teams, Cao said: "The men's team and U-23 team should become first-class squads in Asia between 2016 and 2018, and the women's side should return to the top class of the world."

China's women received similar orders to reach the 2012 Olympics. While Cao said an Asian Games medal was expected, head coach Li Xiaopeng chose not to hide his ambition and set his sights on first place.

China slipped to fourth place in Asia and 14th in the world in the latest FIFA rankings. It will miss the Women's World Cup for the first time after finishing fourth in this year's AFC Women's Asian Cup, losing 2-0 to Japan in the third-place playoff.

However, senior commentator Zhang Lu said the CFA's targets could be too difficult to attain in a short amount of time.

"The cause of the low performance of Chinese soccer is rooted in the lack of a soccer population," said Zhang, who is also the vice-president of domestic league champion Beijing Guo'an. "We should draw lessons from the past and popularize the sport among teenagers instead of emphasizing the score."

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