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The AFC Asian Cup trophy tour kicked-off recently in Shanghai, birthplace of Chinese and Asian football legend Fan Zhiyi. As the build up to the AFC's 60th Anniversary celebrations continue, the three-time AFC Asian Cup participant recalls his experience taking part in Asia's flagship tournament and gives his thoughts on the way forward for Team China.

There is little doubt over Fan Zhiyi's status within Chinese football: as the man who led his country to the finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup and the first player from China to be named AFC Player of the Year, the former Shanghai Shenhua defender is unquestionably an iconic figure.

In 1998 he became – alongside Sun Jihai – the first Chinese player to play in English football when he moved to Crystal Palace before stints in Scotland with Dundee and in Wales at Cardiff City.

Indeed, Fan's prestigious playing career is a catalogue of firsts, but for a man who achieved so much in his career, it is the thought of an achievement that eluded him that sits foremost in his mind: missing out on continental glory at the AFC Asian Cup in 2000.

"I have a deep emotional attachment to the Asian Cup, because I've played in it on three occasions and they're the most important matches in Asian football," says Fan, who appeared at the AFC Asian Cup in 1992, 1996 and 2000. "For the national team, it's great preparation for the World Cup.

"In 1992, our team was still young but in 1996 we had a good chance but the team didn't perform so well. In 2000, that was when our team was at its peak. Our coach, Bora Milutinovic, was experienced and the team was strong both mentally and physically. The matches were very important and they led to us qualifying for the World Cup in 2002."

China fell short of claiming a maiden AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon 14 years ago, losing a thrilling semi-final 3-2 against eventual champions Japan that see-sawed back and forward between the teams before Philippe Troussier's side advanced to the final, where they defeated Saudi Arabia to claim their third continental title.

But the silver lining for the Chinese came less than two years later when they successful qualified for the finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first – and so far only – time. That defeat at the hands of the Japanese, however, still haunts Fan.

"That was a really close game," he says. "We were really confident going into the game but we made a few mistakes, some of the players didn't make the right decisions and it led to us losing the game. That semi-final was one of the worst matches we played in the whole tournament, we were confident going into the game but we didn't handle things on the field very well.

"Both teams were at a similar level, but we wanted to win the title really badly and there was nothing in it. There was only one goal in it. I scored an own goal, but I was just trying to save the ball, I always try to save the ball but there was nothing I could do.

"At the 2000 Asian Cup, when we were playing against teams that were at the same level as us, we found it hard to win. We weren't able to get past the teams at the same level. We would either draw or we would lose by just one goal. It was a lack of experience."

China went closer still four years later on home soil when the nation hosted the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, losing to Japan – again – in the final at Workers' Stadium in Beijing, but by then Fan had retired as the older generation started to fade away.

Subsequent AFC Asian Cup appearances have been a case of diminishing returns for the Chinese with the team unable to progress beyond the group stages in both 2007 and 2011 before only narrowly qualifying for the 2015 finals in Australia.

Fan believes the AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015 represents the perfect opportunity for China to start looking to the future and taking the first step along the road towards the summit of Asian football.

He warns, however, that there is no quick fix and it will be a long process requiring patience and the understanding of Chinese football fans, who have seen their national side slip to 97th in the FIFA World Rankings and to 12th in Asia.

As much as he would love to see China compete at the AFC Asian Cup, Fan feels it should serve as the start of the development of a new generation, just as the 1992 event in Japan served for many in the squad that ultimately qualified for the FIFA World Cup a decade later.

"It's only a few months from now to the AFC Asian Cup and the most important thing is to adjust the mindset and the team's mentality," says the 2001 AFC Player of the Year. "For the China team at the minute, winning games is not the most important thing; it's about how to do the team's best in the game.

"For the World Cup in 2018, the Team China target can't be to qualify, but to use every match as a training session. Of course, qualifying is the best result to get but it's about how to improve the team by playing all of those matches. That means we have eight years, starting from now.

"The China team, or any football team for that matter, can't change in just one year. You can't make changes in a short period of time. There has to be a system that starts with the youth teams and then you have to plan ahead, and target the next cycle for the Asian Cup in 2019.

"If you put your vision in the future and you train your team with that in mind, you will see the results. I know from my own experience that it takes time. In 1992, we were ok and then in 1993 we did better but we were knocked out of World Cup qualifying by Iraq.

"In 1996, we improved but we didn't reach the final of the Asian Cup, but we had the vision at that time and in 2000 in Lebanon we reached the semi-finals against Japan and we then made it to the World Cup, we were improving all the time.

"So the vision for the China team shouldn't focus on one specific match, they have to build up a good group of players that they can chose from and then we need to play games and let the players gain experience so we have a good group of players that we can work with and not just look at specific games."

In the eyes of Fan, AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015 can be the first step towards a brighter future for Chinese football and the China national team.


Photo: AFP