KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Despite boasting one of the world’s highest-spending domestic leagues, China’s dreams of automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup are fading.
China coach Gao Hongbo quit on Tuesday after a 2-0 defeat in Uzbekistan left his team with just one point from four games in Asia’s last round of World Cup qualifying.
“I spoke with the heads of the Chinese Football Association before the match and we agreed if we couldn’t reach a positive result against Uzbekistan I would stand down from my post,” Gao said.
Marat Bikmaev and Otabek Shukurov scored a goal each in Tashkent as Uzbekistan outclassed China, which lost 1-0 at home to Syria five days previously. China has only ever appeared at one World Cup, in 2002.
Despite the poor record on the international stage, there has been massive investment in Chinese soccer in recent years.
Clubs in the Chinese Super 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.
Yet despite the massive 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.
Nations such as Syria and Iraq, which are not allowed to play games at home because of security concerns, have collected more points in qualifying so far.
There are still six games remaining in the round, including one next month when China hosts Qatar, meaning the Chinese team still technically has time to qualify. But with unbeaten Iran leading the group with 10 points, one clear of Uzbekistan and three ahead of South Korea, the chances of China qualifying for Russia 2018 appear to be remote.
The top two of the six teams in Groups A and B will qualify automatically for the World Cup, with the two third-place teams going to a fourth-round match to decide which of them makes the intercontinental playoffs.
Here are other results on Tuesday:
AUSTRALIA 1, JAPAN 1
A second-half penalty from Mile Jedinak earned Australia a draw against Japan in Group B, though the Socceroos drop into second spot in Group B, two points behind leader Saudi Arabia.
Genki Haraguchi had put Japan ahead in the sixth minute after a mistake from the Australian backline, but the Hertha Berlin forward gave away a penalty early in the second half with a push on Tomi Juric.
“We expected a reaction from ourselves and that’s what we got,” Jedinak said. “Second half we were a bit more patient, our movement was better and we put them on the back foot.”
The draw is Australia’s second in a row, following a 2-2 result against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, and leaves the Socceroos unbeaten with eight points from four games. Japan has seven points.
“I think it was two points lost,” Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said. “But we played well and had chances to win.”
SAUDI ARABIA 3, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES 0
Saudi Arabia moved to the top of Group B with an emphatic win in Jeddah.
Fahad Al Muwallad broke the deadlock with 17 minutes remaining and shortly after Nawaf Al Abed added a second.
Yahya Al-Shehri scored in injury time for Bert Van Marwijk’s men. The win takes the four-time World Cup participants to 10 points, two clear of Australia.
United Arab Emirates is fourth in the group with six points, one point behind Japan.
IRAN 1, SOUTH KOREA 0,
A first-half strike from Sardar Azmoun gave Iran victory over South Korea in Tehran to move to top of Group A with 10 points.
Azmoun, 21, scored goal number 16 in just his 22nd appearance for Iran, which dominated the game in front of almost 100,000 fans at the Azadi Stadium.
South Korea, aiming for a ninth successive appearance at the World Cup, is third in the group with seven points.
QATAR 1, SYRIA 0
In Doha, Qatar picked up its first points in Group A with a 1-0 win over Syria.
Hasan Al Haydos scored the only goal of the game with a penalty in the 37th minute.
Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, has three points and climbs off bottom place in the group above China. Syria is fourth with four points.
IRAQ 4, THAILAND 0
Mohannad Abdulraheem scored all four goals as Iraq beat Thailand for its first points in Group B.
Abdulraheem scored two goals in each half against a team that finished with 10 men after Koravit Namwiset was sent off with 20 minutes remaining.
Thailand has lost all four of its group games.