China’s World Cup debut in 2002 was a source of great pride. The world’s most populous country had finally made a belated appearance on the world stage, alongside fellow newcomers Ecuador, Senegal and Slovenia. The sleeping giant had finally awakened, eager to make an impression at the first World Cup held in Asia.
While not much was expected from the team, which was at that time the lowest ranked qualifier (ranked 50th in the world) in the competition, there was a hope that this would be the first of many sich appearances now that they had broken through.
The team was led by an experienced coach in Bora Milutinovic, who became the first to make five consecutive World Cups with different teams, and European-based players like Fan Zhiyi (Dundee), Sun Jihai (Manchester City), Li Tie (soon to go on loan at Everton) and Yang Chen (Eintracht Frankfurt).
China would bow out in the group stages after losing all three matches and conceding nine goals, but the thought was that they’d be back again one day, stronger and eager to impress.
Instead, with the twentieth anniversary of their sole appearance approaching, China appears no closer to making another World Cup. Since Milutinovic, they have gone through five foreign and four local coaches but have not managed to find that spark to return to the promised land.
The aforementioned Li Tie is currently at the helm, with the local vs foreign coaching debate showing no signs of abating. But given the calibre of coaching that has come before the 44-year-old, is it really fair to blame China’s football malaise solely on the one man in charge?
Meanwhile, the Chinese Super League has gained prominence in Asia with some high profile acquisitions both in the coaching and playing ranks. Clubs like Guangzhou FC and Shanghai Port have not been shy to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to paying massive annual salaries to big names.
But has this investment in foreign coaches been worth it?
We take a look at Milutinovic and some of the foreign coaches that have worked in China. Were they worth their considerable expense, or is it perhaps wiser to stick with local talent and work on the fundamentals? What did these illustrious coaches bring to the table over the years?
There is no denying the impact that Milutinovic had on Chinese football. A journeyman coach, the Serb has managed teams in several different continents and had taken four different teams to the knockout stages of the World Cup when he was appointed to the Chinese national team.
China finished top of their qualifying group ahead of the likes of the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Oman to book their tickets to Japan and South Korea.
With his philosophy of “happy football”, Milu (as he was fondly known by Chinese football fans) is still a popular figure in China and even maintains a Chinese social media account, calling himself an “old friend of the Chinese people”.
While he was not the first foreign national team coach in China, coming after the likes of German Klaus Schlappner and Englishman Bobby Houghton, his success spurred the Chinese Football Association (CFA) into investing more money on high profile foreign coaches who never quite reached the heights of their beloved predecessor.