China’s national football coach Gao Hongbo announced his resignation after a 2-0 defeat to Uzbekistan left the perennially underachieving side’s hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia hanging by a thread.
The loss in Tashkent on Tuesday left Team Dragon bottom of their third stage qualifying group for the next World Cup, with only one point from four games. Only the top three of the six contenders will progress.
Despite being the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy, and money pouring into the domestic game after President Xi Jinping declared ambitions to host and one day win the World Cup, China remain minnows on the global football stage.
The team has only ever qualified for one World Cup and are currently ranked a lowly 78th in the world by Fifa.
“I will leave the national team because of poor health,” Gao told a press conference after the Uzbekistan match, the official Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday.
But he acknowledged discussing his future with Chinese Football Association bosses before the game, according to the Asian Football Confederation website.
“We agreed if we couldn’t reach a positive result against Uzbekistan I would stand down from my post,” it quoted him as saying.
“As a result of this defeat, I bring an end to my time in charge of the China national team.”
Gao, a former striker for the national team, previously managed the side in 2009-11 and was reappointed in February, after Frenchman Alain Perrin was sacked following embarrassing performances including a draw with Hong Kong.
Under Gao, China squeaked into the third round of World Cup qualifying, but they endured a humiliating loss at home to war-torn Syria last week and their sole point so far came from a 0-0 draw with Iran.
“I hope the China national team will be better in the future and we will meet in football again,” Gao said.
Gao “failed to mould an effective formation nor playing style for the Chinese team”, Xinhua said, adding that while there were six matches left in the stage, “the performances of the Chinese team have not given the fans any hope”.
But many fans defended Gao on social media, blaming the Chinese Football Association and the players themselves for the team’s woes.
“The men’s team is like rotten meat, and the coach is like the fridge. The meat already stinks, but management doesn’t think to toss it out for fresh stuff, it just keeps changing the fridge,” wrote one user on the Twitter-like platform Weibo.
Gao’s brief tenure is even shorter than the average -- since 2000 the side has had 10 coaches, five of them European and five Chinese.
After his first stint in charge, Gao was replaced by Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho on a lucrative contract, and talk was already turning to the subject of the new successor on Wednesday.
One supporter wrote that “whenever the national team loses, they just want to switch coach, and always invite a foreign coach. It’s not a confident attitude -- it has a bad impact on head coaches, players, local coaches ... It’s just worshipping foreign things.”
Fans called for the sacking of China’s football association president Cai Zhenhua after the defeat to Syria, but he has ignored them so far, instead urging the players “not to lose confidence” over their losses.
Earlier this year, Beijing issued a plan to make Team Dragon one of the world’s top sides by 2050, promising 20,000 academies and 30 million elementary and middle school pupils playing the sport within four years.
Following the blueprint would bring to life “the sports-superpower dream” and “national revival dream”, it said.
But despite official backing and huge spending by domestic club owners, the national team’s travails make hosting the World Cup look a far more realistic goal than winning the competition, as China’s sole appearance in 2002 ended without a single point or even a goal.
Chinese Super League clubs splashed more than 400 million euros ($447 million) on players this year, luring stars such as Liverpool target Alex Teixeira.
China’s next match is at home to 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar next month.