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Chinese soccer still mired in misery
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Chinese soccer has once again been savaged by media and fans after all four domestic league teams were eliminated from the AFC Champions League group stage on Wednesday.

"Outrageous", "Nightmare", "Humiliating" and "Collapse" shrieked newspaper headlines referring to the country's continuing misery in the continent's premier club competition.

"Speechless" in large font even appeared on one front page in response to China's perennial flop on the international stage.

For the third year in a row no Chinese club advanced to the knock-out stage of the AFC Champions League.

"We have to admit China's far behind neighbors Japan and Korea," an unidentified official from the Chinese Football Association (CFA) was quoted as saying by Beijing Times. "The truth is the gap is getting bigger."

Japanese and Saudi Arabian clubs reinforced their competitive credentials with four teams from each qualifying for the round of 16, while three South Korean teams also went through.

Beijing Guo'an, Tianjin Teda and Shanghai Shenhua had already been eliminated before Shandong Luneng squandered a 2-0 first half lead to go down 2-4 to minnows Sriwijaya on Wednesday.

Shandong coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic was stunned afterwards.

"We are out of this competition and it is hard to believe that, as we were 2-0 up in the first half," he said. "But that's the reality and we must look now to build a stronger team for the future."

Shandong's collapse proved unacceptable to local fans, some of whom have vowed to boycott Shandong's next domestic league match.

"If you are the Shandong team's soccerl fan, please do not go to watch Sunday's match at home," one fan exhorted on the internet.

"Our players have lost dignity and face. We should punish them because we fans have the dignity. We cannot tolerate their performances and the result."

One group of extreme fans even claimed the match was fixed by some Shandong players and have asked CFA to investigate.

Where to now?

After the euphoria of 2001, when China qualified for their first World Cup in South Korea and Japan the following year, the perennial under-achievers failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games, as well as the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals.

Despite several new head coaches and bosses of the sport's governing body CFA, they have shown little improvement

The domestic league's development has been closely linked to the national team's fortunes and is the fundamental base for the sport's future.

Defending champions Shandong and big-spending Shanghai are the strongest and richest clubs and produce the most national representatives. Beijing have also invested millions of dollars in overseas players this season in order to win a domestic championship and succeed in the AFC Champions League.

But their collective failure amounts to another challenge for newly appointed national head coach Gao Hongbo and CFA boss Nan Yong.

Gao, 43, became the youngest man earlier this month to take the helm in 30 years and is the seventh coach since 2000. Gao will soon announce a national team list before China take on Germany next Saturday in Shanghai.

CFA boss Nan Yong is under increasing pressure to lift the sport off rock bottom after replacing Xie Yalong, who was vilified as the "sinner of Chinese soccer" after the national side failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup last June two months before they were eliminated from the group stage of the Beijing Games, without notching a win.

CFA spokesman Dong Hua yesterday said China's soccer needs a long time to catch up.

"The AFC Champions League showed where we are in Asia. It will take a long time for China to develop the overall level and decrease the gap with top level clubs," Dong conceded. "But it needs all efforts from every club in the domestic league."

(China Daily May 22, 2009)

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