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LIU JUNSHENG is an editor of China Soccer in Beijing.

Globe-trotting coach Bora Milutinovic's latest assignment is probably his most challenging yet: to take China to the World Cup finals for the first time ever. And if he fails? The charismatic Milutinovic smiles and jokes: "I'll throw myself off the Great Wall of China!"

cold New Year's morning in Beijing, and Bora Milutinovic is training with his players. His typical answer seems to amuse the ever-present group of journalists around him -- but many Chinese fear he might not really be so sure just how tough his task is as head coach of China's national team, a job known as the "coaches' Waterloo". The Chinese Football Association (CFA) took him on as the man who has coached four different teams at the World Cup: Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the USA in 1994 and Nigeria in 1998. Not so many years ago, Chinese fans could only have dreamed of such a famous man being in charge.

But not everything is easy for Milutinovic in China, and there are as many people sceptical about his chances as those who are optimistic. "Bora is an excellent coach, but he is also a lucky one," says Lada Oganjnovic, the former Yugoslav coach of the Chinese Olympic team of 1996 and a close friend of Milutinovic. "He's coached four different teams in the World Cup, but he's never had to qualify. Maybe he lacks the experience for these games, but they are so crucial for China."

Milutinovic disagrees. "Don't forget I led the Mexican Olympic team through the preliminary games for Atlanta, and then I went to Nigeria," he points out. Last August he scored his first real success within half a year in China when his team beat Thailand, Uzbekistan and Iraq in an international tournament in Shanghai.

Milu, as he is known to most Chinese fans, also proved himself in last year's Asian Cup in Lebanon. Although finishing only fourth, fans and media praised his team as they fought to draw 2-2 with their nemesis, KoreaRepublic, and later came close to beating the outstanding Japan team in the semi-finals.

"I couldn't get used to the way he taught us at first, but now I think he's a very good coach," says Fan Zhiyi, for twelve years a key defender for the national team and currently playing for Crystal Palace in England. "He has very sharp judgement, he always finds out our shortcomings on time and points them out to us in different ways. Now we're getting to understand his ideas and strategy better."

The whole nation went wild
Playing in the FIFA World Cupô is a national dream in China, but has only brought bitter memories for the fans until now. When China lost 1-2 to Hong Kong in a qualifying match for the 1986 World Cup in May 1985, angry and disappointed fans demonstrated in the streets; when the team qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time in October 1987 by defeating Japan 2-1 in Tokyo, the whole nation went wild, with students even using their bed-sheets for flaming torches on their victory parades.

China
The People's Republic of China has a population of around 1.24 billion people and is thus the world's most populous country. In the capital Beijing alone there are approximately 11 million inhabitants. And in terms of area too China is an immense country; it has an area of 9.57 million km2 , which puts it in 4th place in that respect. But in terms of football, China does not yet rank among the top nations, with the exception of the women's team which has been very successful for many years already. So far no Chinese men's team has ever managed to qualify for the final round of a FIFA tournament. Their biggest success so far was reaching the final of the Asian Nations Cup in 1984. The Chinese record holder as far as international appearances go is Li Fusheng (54 caps between 1976 and 1984). The country's top scorer is Da Yu Zhao with 19 goals between 1983 and 1985. The Chinese Football Association (CFA),which has been a member of FIFA since 1934, has around 450,00 registered players, 2500 clubs and 500 referees. The biggest stadium in the country is the National stadium in Beijing with a capacity of 63,000.
This frenzy reached another peak when China narrowly lost their chance again in 1997, the third year of the C-league. Many fans had high hopes of their team qualifying for France as a result of the transformation that football had undergone through the new national league. True to tradition, coach Qi Wusheng was sacked to appease the fans.

"We have a population of over 1.2 billion, so why can't we find a team of only eleven to qualify for the World Cup just once?" asks Huang Qun, a typical 32-year-old fan from Hubei Province, and China's football achievements do appear modest when compared with the expectations of possibly the biggest group of fans anywhere in the world. And now all their hopes are pinned on Milutinovic.

The Chinese smiled when the English proudly spoke of football "coming home" for the European Championship in 1996, claiming that China was the real birthplace of football. More than 2,000 years ago, the ancient Chinese invented a ball game that was similar to modern football, but it served merely as entertainment and recreation for people like the emperor and his concubines, and had none of modern football's bravery, physical power, tactics and mental agility. Now the game's inventors have to start from scratch if they want to catch up with the rest of the world.

As on many occasions in Chinese history, the game's authorities decided to "learn from foreigners to compete with foreigners". A relatively unknown German, Klaus Schlappner, became the national team's first foreign coach and he was welcomed as a national hero. "I feel like a president here," he once told his friends proudly.

But it did not last long. This team lost again in the first qualifying stage for the 1994 World Cup, and Schlappner was succeeded by Qi Wusheng, who renewed the old story in 1997. Then came the Englishman Bobby Houghton, who was ousted for failing to lead the Olympic team to the Sydney Games last year. And the baton was handed to Milutinovic.

A good football atmosphere
When even a foreign coach could not save the team, the CFA revised its thinking and introduced a professional league, the C-league, in 1994. It appeared to be a great success as the game generated more public and sponsor interest, players and coaches found themselves "millionaires" overnight and even ordinary players earn several dozen times more than Chinese workers. Footballers and famous coaches became celebrities and small boys began to dream of becoming stars.

A few top players have been detected by European clubs and have left to play abroad. Besides Fan Zhiyi and Yang Chen (Eintracht Frankfurt), the national team captain, Ma Mingyu, transferred to Perugia in Italy last July; his team-mate, Zhang En Hua, went to Grimsby and both Li Ming and Sun Jihai have also attracted interest from England. Meanwhile, more and more foreign players and coaches have been coming to China to join the "gold rush", with all 26 clubs but one signing foreign players. But this means more and more foreign players are occupying the positions of young Chinese players.

"I don't think it's right to have so many foreign players in the C-league when young Chinese players have less chance to improve," says Lada Oganjnovic. "Let's remember that China has to compete for the World Cup itself, not with the help of foreign players."

"We admit that some foreign coaches are more knowledgeable and experienced than us," said Jin Zhiyang, one of Milutinovic's three Chinese assistant coaches. "But we have our own priorities and we know our players better. We learn from foreign coaches today, we defeat them tomorrow."

Milutinovic has complained that while the football atmosphere is good in China, the country still lacks a complete football infrastructure. "Jiangsu Province is one of the largest with a population of over 70 million, but before 1995 there were only 200 professional footballers in a few teams," says Liu Pingyu, former head coach of Jiangsu Club. "Now things are getting better with the C-league and we have plenty of clubs and more than 800 registered players."

Creativity and confidence
The CFA also has a new long-term strategy to train young players, with all 26 C-league clubs required to have their own youth and teenage teams for talented young players. And the CFA is spending large amounts of money on building stadiums, fields and football schools.

"We shouldn't just concentrate on the World Cup," says CFA Deputy Chairman Zhang Jilong. "The best way to catch up with world level is to attract and train more boys to play football. They are the future of Chinese football."

Milutinovic did not take long to identify his team's Achilles heel. "They have to learn to perform more self-confidently," he told reporters. "The guys need to feel strong, no matter who they play against." This inferiority complex, the result of so many defeats, cannot be cured overnight. Milutinovic handles this problem as he did with the US national team, teaching the players his philosophy of "happy football"; he always wears a big smile for his players, he jokes with them and praises them constantly, he does all he can to put them at ease for their matches. Even when they lost to Japan in the Asian Cup semi-final, he praised and thanked them at the press conference.

But verbal praise alone is clearly not enough to help the players build up their confidence. More importantly, Milutinovic has to correct his team's technical mistakes and improve their mentality. "Milu is always asking us all kinds of questions and we have to keep alert to give him the answer," a young national team striker told reporters. "Once after a training match, he asked me, 'Do you know what you should ask me for? Aspirin!' He saw I was confused and said, 'because you have a headache!' Then I realised it was his way of telling me he wanted me to use my head more!"

Yang Chen, China's promising striker now with Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany, agrees. "Milu doesn't give us too much theory," he say, "he points out our shortcomings and makes us understand what is best. Now our players are more ready to bring the ball down and use it more creatively and confidently."

Milutinovic set off to Italy in early January, hoping his team would benefit from their warm-up games there as an important part of his World Cup plan - and to avoid having to throw himself off the Great Wall of China.


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  Copyright © 1994-2001 En-Linea, Inc. All rights reserved.


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