October 12, 2016

BEIJING (AP) Outrage after losing to Syria has been followed by an air of resignation in China.

The national soccer team's second loss in five days leaves China with only the slimmest chance of qualifying for the next World Cup.

The perennial underachievers have under-performed against a backdrop of massive investment in the domestic league, which is luring star players in record-breaking transfers and coaches from around the world. The imported talent doesn't appear to be improving the vast pool of local players.

Gao Hongbo quit after the 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan on Tuesday night left his team with just one point from four games in Asia's last round of World Cup qualifying. Gao spoke to the Chinese Football Association after last week's 1-0 home loss to war-torn Syria - a result that reportedly sparked angry protests from fans - and indicated he'd stand aside if there was a loss in Tashkent.

''As a result of this defeat, I bring an end to my time in charge of the China national team,'' he said. ''I hope the China national team will be better in the future and we will meet in football again.''

Critics questioned his team selections and tactical decisions, but an editorial in the Communist Party flagship People's Daily on Wednesday said the analysis was ultimately meaningless. The newspaper bemoaned the fact that, despite some early signs of hope, China was the weakest of the 12 teams still in contention in Asia.

''With such a team and such players, what would it matter whether they were coached by Ferguson, Mourinho or Guardiola?'' the editorial said. ''The midfield was in constant flux and the power of the attack was virtually nil. With all the `foreign assistance' running wild in the Chinese Super League, just coming up with a roster of 23 was no easy task.

''Given that China again has only a theoretical possibility of making it out of the group stage, thinking calmly, should Chinese football not return to the starting point and start from scratch?''

The People's Daily said the Chinese Super League was papering over deficiencies in the national football setup with all the money both earned by selling television rights and spent on hiring foreign players and coaches.

Clubs in the league have spent more than $400 million on foreign players in 2016 alone. South American stars such as Hulk, Alex Teixeira, Ramires and Jackson Martinez have helped Shanghai SIPG, Jiangsu Suning and Guangzhou Evergrande challenge in the domestic competition and in the Asian Champions League.

High-profile coaches including Luiz Felipe Scolari, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Manuel Pellegrini have also lifted the international profile of the league.

China is mobilizing under President Xi Jinping's drive to overhaul the game domestically and turn the Chinese team into a World Cup winner by 2050.

But despite the investment from the private and public sector - the government is also focusing on youth development - the standard of the national team will take longer to improve.

The People's Daily didn't recognize any improvement in its editorial, instead saying ''China's national team is merely marching in place or even going backward in terms of quality.''

The rebuilding phase must start immediately, with China hosting Qatar next month in its last World Cup qualifier of the year. There are five more matches, starting in March. To have any chance of making it to Russia for the 2018 tournament, China needs to get on a winning roll and rely on group leaders Iran, Uzbekistan and South Korea failing to pick up many points. Only the top two teams in both six-team qualifying groups will advance to the World Cup. The two third-place teams go into another playoff.

China's only appearance at the World Cup was in 2002, when it failed to score a goal in the tournament that was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.

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