It was a Friday afternoon in late August. I sat in a Japanese café near the consulate of South Korea in Shanghai. To kill time, I read the headlines. 

“Another big boom in Chinese football.” I felt a whisper in my heart.

When Marcello Lippi, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Sven-Göran Eriksson came to China, they had long since fallen from the zenith of their coaching career. But Manuel Pellegrini had been at Manchester City just a few months earlier, giving orders to the richest players in the world. Several months later he was going to coach a mid-table team in the Chinese league — it sounded surreal.

I was in the café waiting for my visa to visit Seoul for the first match of the AFC World Cup qualifying final round for China. 15 years after qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, China were back on the highest stage of Asian football.

Alain Perrin was once a hero of Chinese football. In January 2015, he reached the height of his reputation after China’s unanticipated three straight wins in the group stage of the Asian Cup. Nine months later, he was regarded as nothing but a charlatan after two 0-0 draws against Hong Kong. Two months after the goalless match in Hong Kong, Perrin left the job. Although they received around 40 job applications from all over the world, in early February 2016 the Chinese Football Association appointed Gao Hongbo, a 50-year-old Chinese coach, as Perrin’s successor.

But he was not a greenhorn in this position. 

Gao Hongbo’s first spell as national coach was controversial. There were glorious chapters — in the 2010 East Asian Football Championship, China thrashed South Korea 3-0. And even more astonishingly, in a friendly before the 2010 World Cup, China defeated Raymond Domenech’s France in Réunion. There were disappointing moments — in the 2011 Asian Cup, China failed to qualify from the group, their worst ever performance in the competition, and in July of the same year they found themselves 2-0 down against Laos after 35 minutes in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. One month after the two legs against Laos, in which China humiliatingly conceded three goals, Gao Hongbo was forced out and replaced by José Antonio Camacho.

Gao’s mission was to win the last two games in the second-round of qualifying and then hope other results went their way to grant China progress to the final phase. They beat the Maldives 4-0 and then won 2-0 against Qatar who had already qualified. In Manila, the Philippines scored twice in the last five minutes to beat North Korea 3-2, the result China needed to progress as one of the four best runners-up.

For China, the final phase of World Cup qualifying is the real test, greater than the Asian Cup.  The national team’s slogan is “冲出亚洲,走向世界 –  “Excel in the ring of Asia to climb to the top stage of the world.” Towards the end of the 20th century, China regularly competed at that level and in 2001 qualified for the World Cup for the first time. But then came the fall: three successive World Cups when they didn’t even make that final qualifying round. Now it was back, albeit helped by the expansion of the final round to 12 teams.

Seoul was not a good place to start. “恐韩症 – South Koreaphobia – is a key term in Chinese football, reflecting China’s dreadful record against South Korea. Before 2010, when Gao’s side beat South Korea in Tokyo, China had lost 18 and drawn 10 of 28 games against South Korea1.  Even that victory at the East Asian Championship, though, deserves an asterisk: it was far from a full-strength South Korea side.

The South Korea team China would encounter this time was far tougher, including Son Heung-Min, Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-cheol and Lee Chung-Yong – all of whom played in elite European leagues. But the dynamic had shifted. Although China were still the underdogs, the Chinese had one thing to be proud of: years of investment in their league had witnessed an influx high-profile foreign players, including a number of top-class South Korean players. Three of South Korea’s back four for that game in Seoul played in the Chinese league. 

This first meeting between full-strength Chinese and South Korean sides since a friendly before the 2002 World Cup felt like the beginning of a new age for China. Even the shirts were different. For the first time in their history, China wore yellow away kits provided by Nike, having ended their deal with Adidas, who had always supplied white away kits with red trim. This new strip was a golden yellow with a red dragon-scale pattern, reflecting the colours of the national flag and nodding to the reverence for gold, a colour reserved for emperors in ancient China.

But after 20 minutes, China’s captain Zheng Zhi bundled Son Heung-Min’s free-kick into his own net. The term South Koreaphobia was coined because Chinese fans believe their own country is not far behind South Korea, that their winless streak against them is more the result of luck than talent. The opening goal seemed just another example of that. China created some chances but two goals in quick succession midway through the second half made it 3-0. There was the danger of a rout. But then Oh Jae-Seok, the only one of the South Korean back four not playing in China, made a sloppy headed clearance, presented the ball to Yu Hai who smashed it into the corner. A free-kick from Hao Junming, once a youth prospect at Chelsea, made it 3-2.

China kept coming. Ren Hang found space about eight yards out, but his volley was saved by the strong hands of Jung Sung-Ryong. South Korea hung on. Their coach, Uli Stielike, faced a barrage of awkward questions. For China, despite the defeat, there seemed promise.

The following day, China flew to Shenyang for their second qualifier, against Iran. The city, 350 miles from Seoul, was chosen to minimise travelling time, because its climate is similar to Seoul’s and because security is cheaper there than in Shanghai or Beijing. It was also a superstitious choice: it was in Shenyang that China played all of their home qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, winning four out of four.

As its outdated construction was considered not fit to host matches at the 2008 Olympic Games, the Wulihe Stadium was demolished in 2007 but the local government was not oblivious to its historical significance. A football theme park was built next door, including memorial statues. When the statues were established in Shenyang Green Island Forest Park in early 2002 to mark China’s historical breakthrough, there were 44 of them – players, coaches and football officials from that squad. As time passed, around 12 statues were removed for political reasons because they depicted people jailed for corruption and match-fixing.

A player represented by one of the statues that remained was in the press box at the Shenyang Olympic Sports Center Stadium to commentate on the game against Iran: Li Tie, back in the city of his birth. Apart from his spell in England, when he played for Everton and was on the books of Sheffield United, Li Tie spent most of his career with Liaoning Whowin, his home-town club. He was a vital member of Bora Milutinović’s China side, playing at the back of midfield. After he retired, he worked as an assistant coach with Lippi before, in 2015, being appointed head coach of Hebei China Fortune after Radomir Antić was dismissed. After a promising beginning, results had gone sour and he had been sacked 10 days before the Iran game; he was replaced by Manuel Pellegrini.

Alongside South Korea, Iran are regarded as the most intimidating opponent for China. In qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, China went 2-0 up against Iran at home only to let in four in half an hour. They were battered by four in Tehran as well. China were also defeated by Iran twice in the 1998 Asian Games and conceded another four goals against them in a friendly in Tehran in early 2001. The poor record has led to a noticeable sensitivity on the part of China. When, in the pre-match press-conference, an Iranian journalist mentioned to the Iran coach Carlos Queiroz that Iran had scored eight in two games against China in World Cup qualifying in 1997, many Chinese journalists grumbled that it was impolite to mention it.

Gao Hongbo selected the most promising young talent in China, Zhang Yuning, the 19-year-old centre-forward from Vitesse, alongside Wu Lei in the starting line-up. He also stuck with the back five he had deployed against South Korea. It finished 0-0, the first time Iran had failed to score since losing to Argentina at the 2014 World Cup. Given China’s record against Iran it wasn’t a bad result, but there were those who wondered if Gao mightn’t have been a little conservative.

That night, Syria held South Korea to a 0-0 draw. “We were the 12th of 12 to qualify for the final round,” Gao said. “Among the six teams in Group A, we are in sixth place.”

The third group match was scheduled for October 6, during China’s National Holiday Golden Week. Tickets sold out early for the game against Syria in Xi’an, a city that loves football, and were trading on the black market for more than £400.

Xi’an, an ancient capital of China, was, by some accounts, the largest city in the world in the early Middle Ages. Although it had no team in the top two tiers of the Chinese league, it was a large football market before Shaanxi Renhe were relocated to Guiyang in 2012 (Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province). Historically, teams from Xi’an were never that successful, but they were always ferociously supported. Adjacent to the south citadel of the historical city, the Shaanxi Province Stadium had hosted China six times; it had always been packed and China had never lost while playing there. It was there, six months earlier, that China had beaten Qatar to reach the final phase of qualifying.

Most fans were confident of victory, seeing Syria as the weakest team in the group. And most, relieved Perrin had gone, saw Gao as a hero. But there are two sides to him. In front of the cameras, he is unassuming, humble and introverted. The other side of his character is persistence and narcissism. 

The three central defenders remained, but this time Yu Hai, a winger, operated wide as the 5-3-2 became a 3-5-2. Gao had spoken of remaining humble, of being the sixth side in the group, but it was clear the intention was to attack. China dominated possession, but they lacked incisiveness. Then, 10 minutes into the second half, a long ball was sent in behind the Chinese defence. Mahmoud Al Mawas, Syria’s centre-forward, gave chase. Two defenders seemed to have the situation under control but Gu Chao, making his first start in goal for his country, came charging out. He missed the ball, collided with a defender and left Al Mawas with an open net. Syria had the lead.

Gao threw on two forwards and China went to madcap long-ball football. It didn’t work. Perhaps this is the cost of a flourishing league. With investment, the big names came, attracted fans, increased the league’s influence and made teams improve on the pitch. But the pivotal positions were taken by expensive foreign players, while the local players were restricted to auxiliary roles. China have lacked a high-class goalscorer for a decade. For all Zhang Yuning’s promise, he is just 19 and was the first to be substituted. Wu Lei, the leading Chinese goalscorer in the domestic league, came on, but never troubled Syria. China’s fans wailed and moaned and the unbeaten record of Xi’an was lost.

I arrived in Tashkent a day before China’s game there against Uzbekistan. It seemed appropriate to have followed the route of the silk roads, whose eastern starting point was Xi’an.

The capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent witnessed rapid development in the 1940s, with the influx of millions of people who had been evacuated during World War II. In the early 1950s, suffering from cancer, the deported Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sent to a clinic in Tashkent from Kazakhstan. He was on the brink of death but recovered. Although he perhaps best-known now for his 1974 work The Gulag Archipelago, his reputation in the West and his Nobel Prize were based upon Cancer Ward, a semi-autobiographical work inspired by the experiences in the city. 

The city has a lethargic feel, none of the hustle and bustle of the Chinese coast, but history has moved fast here. In Solzhenitsyn’s time, most than half the city’s population was Russian but now it is mostly Uzbek. Kostoglotov, the Solzhenitsyn-figure in the novel, spent hours travelling by trams to have all the necessary forms signed before being admitted to the hospital. The Tashkent tramway system that had been founded more than a century ago, however, was completely removed in May. 

A month before I arrived, Islam Karimov, who had served as president for 25 years, passed away. Uzbekistan’s players acknowledged his death when celebrating their win away to Qatar, pointing into the sky.

The stadium is also a symbol of the country’s progress. The Bunyudkor Stadium is strikingly modern. It was built for Bunyodkor, the club once owned by Karimov’s eldest daughter.

Football has also progressed. The last time China arrived in Tashkent it was as honoured winners, two weeks after securing their place at the 2002 World Cup. By the time they came again, 15 years later, Uzbekistan had displaced China at the head of Asian football’s second rank.

After the pre-match press conference I came across Akmal, a senior official in Uzbekistan’s football federation. “Why is Chinese football struggling?” he asked. “In Uzbekistan we have only a few thousand registered players. You have the population, you have money, you have everything…”

Millions of people, including the Chinese, have asked the question time and again. I don’t have a good answers and nor does anybody else I know. 

The defeat to Syria was a disappointment, but there was still hope; a year earlier, China had produced a brilliant second-half comeback to beat Uzbekistan in the Asian Cup group stage. A draw was regarded as the minimum requirement. Gao remained stubborn, sticking to his 5-3-2 formation and selecting Ren Hang, even though the goalkeeper had been suspended by his club Jiangsu Suning for several months over a contract dispute. A more controversial decision was his replacement for the suspended Zhang Linpeng. Du Wei, the former Celtic player who had been Gao’s captain in his first spell, was deployed in the centre of the defensive line. At 33, nobody believed he was a top-class central defender any more. Meanwhile Zheng Zhi, the legend of Chinese football over the last decade, the pivotal player and the captain of Guangzhou Evergrande, was left at home. 

China sat deep against a side that had taken six points from their opening three games. Uzbekistan dominated the ball, but the first half was uneventful. They came out again for the second half. China didn’t, not for a while, and were fined 5000 Swiss francs by Fifa for their tardiness. Only later would the significance become apparent.

China looked more anxious in possession as though they were waiting for a mistake. When it came, it was from Du Wei, whose poor header presented Uzbekistan with the ball. got the goal. Gao made a change, taking off Jiang Zhipeng, who had come on as a first-half substitute for the injured Ke Sun. Uzbekistan hit the woodwork twice and then, with five minutes to go, doubled their lead through a deflected Otabek Shukurov shot. They then hit the post again: it finished 2-0 but the gulf between the sides was far bigger than that.

10 minutes after the final whistle, around 50 Chinese journalists assembled in the conference hall, outnumbering the local journalists. The mood was bleak. Gao entered and read out a statement: “Last night I had a talk with the chief officials and we exchanged our ideas. According to our chief officials, the head coach should take full responsibility for the problems of the national team. Now that the match has finished, I have decided to leave my position.

“First, I’d like to offer my thanks to those who have worked with me, including the players and my assistants, for their support and help. Secondly, I’d like to offer thanks to all fans for their persistent support in Chinese football. Finally, I wish the national team can be better in the future. I am not feeling well, so I have to leave now.”

He took no questions. The following day, Cai Zhenhua, the president of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), insisted that they had not exerted any pressure on their head coach.

The CFA had already decided whom they wanted as Gao’s replacement. Just 11 days after the defeat to Uzbekistan they confirmed what everybody already knew, signing a three-year contract with Marcello Lippi, worth more than €10million after tax over three years. He seemed perfect for the role of redeemer. His record was unquestionable: he’d won the World Cup, the Champions League, Serie A, the Chinese Super League and AFC Champions League. He was a great coach and he’d had success in China. Even the money wasn’t a worry: Xu Jiayin, the chairman of Evergrande Group and Lippi’s former boss, would pay a significant amount of the contract. 

Lippi admitted that qualifying for World Cup was unlikely, but he said he would do everything to accomplish it. Among fans and pundits his arrival reignited hope. 

His debut came at home against Qatar in Kunming, a city at an altitude of almost 2000m. He took his players there 10 days before the game to acclimatise, whereas Qatar’s players arrived the day before the game after a sleepless night at Bangkok airport. Given Qatar were second-bottom of the group, having taken just three points from four games, this was a game China had to win.

Lippi’s side dominated. They hit the post twice. They drew 0-0.

The performance was much-improved, but China’s lack of quality was clear. They hadn’t scored in four games and lay bottom of the group with two points, eight behind South Korea in the second of the group’s two World Cup qualifying slots. Lippi and his players left the pitch to approval, but China’s World Cup qualification hopes were over. “We have to consider the issue of long-term development of Chinese football,” Lippi said. “Now we need to build a strong team, they need to have dedication.”

At present, football is a part of China’s long-term state-level project. Appointing Lippi, a figure of such stature he is known even by government officials who know little of football, is a reasonable response. But he cannot transform the Chinese national team overnight, nor could he save China’s waning 2018 World Cup dream. He must be the chief designer for the long-term development of Chinese football, to sow the seeds for accomplishing the immortal goal of “excelling in the ring of Asia to climb to the stage of the world”.