Vietnam came into this match on the back of seven consecutive losses and no chance of qualification for Qatar 2022, but this did not deter them. The pressure was off and they produced a masterly performance in beating China 3-1. China had to win their remaining matches to keep alive their slim chances of qualification. They instead suffered their first-ever loss to Vietnam, a team 20 positions below them in the FIFA rankings.

This defeat is a devastating blow to the Chinese Football Association (CFA) as they have been plowing billions into the building of 26,000 new football pitches from 2016 to 2020 to fast-track the development of the game. This has failed to have the desired results as the national team are ranked 74th in the world. They are still a position below Cape Verde in the rankings, a country with a population of only 500,000 people.

China spends billions on football with zero returns

China has spared no expense in improving its national team, having set up football academies that were modeled on those in the UK and Spain and securing top broadcasting rights for the major football leagues and competitions from around the globe.

The biggest investment by the CFA was the setting up of the Chinese Super League (CSL). The CSL initially attracted world-class players such as Carlos Tevez, Oscar and Hulk. The players in the league were among the highest-earning footballers in the world.

All this has been in vain though as the continued interference by authorities has seen teams in the CSL fall into heavy debt due to outrageous spending. A classic case was when Jiangsu FC won the league in 2020 and were dissolved just three months later due to bankruptcy. One of the most bizarre decisions taken was to suspend the league from August to December last year so that national team members could focus on World Cup qualifiers. There was widespread outrage from fans and club administrators as teams were already struggling as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

China needs more local professional footballers

The defeat could not have come at a worse time for China as it is days away from the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo had more than 1.2 million posts within two hours of the loss. Most users called this the most humiliating defeat in Chinese football history.

China were trying to qualify for their second-ever World Cup after their maiden appearance in the 2002 tournament. However, this increasingly more difficult task will have to wait for another four years.

To have any realistic chance of future qualification, China will need to urgently increase its number of registered professional footballers. China currently has between 2,000 and 4,000 players, while countries such as England and Germany have 10 times the number of registered players. The most telling factor with these numbers is that these countries’ populations are not even a tenth of China’s population.