There’s an old saying that the greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time someone falls.
This motto, taught by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, pretty much summed up China’s football team last night. Down to ten men, and needing a goal to give themselves a chance of qualification, they battled back to claim the victory on a moonlit night in Qatar.
It was like watching a football equivalent of the fight between Anthony Joshua and Vladimir Klitschko. Different sport. Different atmosphere. Different crowd size with different levels of media publicity. Yet the match took on the same narrative, as an upcoming sporting franchise defied the odds late on after having been knocked down earlier in the tie.
The first near knockout punch occurred when Akrim Afif had opened the scoring for Qatar in the 46th minute after a neat move down the right. In acres of space, he raced past the tiring Hanchao Yu, received the ball from Almoez Ali Abdulla, and place it neatly into the corner out of Zeng’s despairing reach.
China responded emphatically. Buoyed by the experience of manager Marcello Lippi and the faint possibility of qualification, Xiao Zhi powered home after meeting a looping cross from Zhipeng Jiang on the left.
Then disaster for the away side as captain Zheng Zhi received his marching orders for a last-gasp challenge on Afif. China had already conceded ten goals in the qualification group, so hanging on to a draw looked more feasible than attempting to scoring again, but it was now do or die for a team who had to win.
And Lippi’s men battled back. Acutely aware that their faint qualification hopes also rested on South Korea beating Uzbekistan and Iran triumphing over Syria, they took nothing to chance and found an inner strength, using the counter attack to their advantage to stun their opponents.
After soaking up Qatari pressure China knew that they would have to make the most of any opportunity, so when one opened up on the left, they raced up the pitch, in a flash. A pocket of space emerged, resulting in a wicked ball which bounced awkwardly off the knee of Qatar left back Al Ali straight into the path of Chinese substitute Wu Lei. He knew the importance of the strike and kept his calm to pelt it into the back of the net.
The team hung on. So did it matter? Well, not exactly. While late goals were the theme in Doha the unfortunate reality for China was Syria read a similar script, equalising in the 92nd minute to claim a point against Iran, securing them the third spot in the group and qualification to a two match play-off.
Had China picked up points against Syria and Qatar they would be on the plane to Russia next June, but the unfortunate realisation for them is that while they are a nation with a domestic league that rivals those in Europe regarding money, China are still light years away on a national football stage.
Perhaps the same could be said of Qatar. The match took place in a near-empty Khalifa stadium, the first international to be played in a revamped venue that will be used during the 2022 World Cup finals.
The passion is certainly evident. When in the first half China and Qatar forced saves from Saad Al-Sheeb and Zeng respectively the cameras turned to the benches and the agonising facial expressions were there to see. The same goes for the joyous jubilation for China at the full-time whistle, only to discover that it was all in vain.
Both Qatar and China will be back on an international stage, but both teams need to look at themselves in the mirror and think about how quickly they can improve their image of football.