Football: Asia's World Cup hopefuls conquer suburbia

Phil Shaw watches China's finest footballers conclude an unheralded English tour with their fifth win in five games
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It was like something out of Star Trek. The footballers of the most populous country on the planet beamed down to a south London playing field zapped all the alien armoury the locals could muster and then prepared to fly back to their own world.

Sparrows Lane, the Charlton Athletic training ground in leafy, suburban SE9, was the final frontier for the national squad of the People's Republic of China on their 10-day English tour. The Chinese, building up towards a series of matches which could see them boldly go to the World Cup finals for the first time, return home tomorrow with an unbeaten record from five games.

Charlton typified the clubs encountered by China in as much as they fielded a mixture of up-and-coming youngsters and hardened professionals. Yet there was much to admire in the way the Chinese, themselves using the private friendly to give their second-choice players a run-out, employed skill and speed to win 4-2.

In their opening match, China beat Nottingham Forest 2-0. They then overwhelmed Crystal Palace 5-2 - after being two down - before winning 2-1 against a Chelsea side featuring Gullit, Kharin, Duberry and Rocastle. Their penultimate fixture, against an Arsenal team which included Lee Dixon, was abandoned at 0-0 with seven minutes remaining.

"I took them off because it got a bit naughty, with a few bad tackles flying about," explained Ted Buxton, the former aide to Terry Venables who is a technical consultant to the Chinese FA. In the interests of diplomacy, he declined to specify the culprits. Suffice to say that, against Charlton, the Chinese committed few fouls and never showed dissent.

They have certainly come a long way, technically and physically, since 1979, when public games against West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Celtic all ended in defeat. The visit to The Hawthorns was in reciprocation of Albion's trip to the Orient the previous year (when a tongue-in-cheek player remarked on camera at the Great Wall: "See one wall and you've seen them all."). Ron Atkinson's team had won all four matches at a canter.

The Chinese had only just been readmitted to Fifa, the world game's governing body, having left in 1958 in protest over teams from Taiwan and Hong Kong being allowed to play as China. There was already a strong tradition of football - indeed, they took part in the first international on Asian soil, against the Philippines in Manila in 1913.

In the interim it was left to North Korea to fly the flag for the Far East - the name Pak Doo Ik still causes palpitations among Italians of a certain age after his winning goal in 1966 - but China, like Japan, are starting to get their act together. There is a new professional league, and one of those rested yesterday, Hao Hai Dong, commanded a Chinese record transfer fee of pounds 172,000 when he left the Army Club, August First, for Dalian Wanda.

Hao was the leading scorer as China advanced smoothly through the first stage in the campaign to reach France next summer. They now receive Iran on 13 September, the first of eight World Cup matches in as many weeks in which they also take on Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The top two go through automatically, but a complex qualifying system could yet pit China and Buxton against Australia and Venables in a play-off for a place in the finals.

In the longer term, the Chinese are clearly equipped to prosper. Four years ago, half a dozen of their Under-16 squad spent a month training in Brazil, and there was more than a hint of Latin flair about their performance against Charlton. One of the boys from Brazil, Li Jing Yu, could easily have had a double hat-trick but had to settle for three goals.

With 20 minutes remaining, the 2-2 scoreline flattered Charlton, only for the Chinese to finish them off when Li scored twice in quick succession.

There was no great height in their line-up, with the exception of the 6ft 5in goalkeeper Fu Bin, which meant they struggled against the aerial strength of Mark Bright. However, they broke out with pace and precision, most players being comfortable taking the ball on either foot. If the shooting was sometimes wayward, it was also ambitious, and it is easy to imagine them scoring spectacular goals in a future World Cup.

Whether it will be next year remains to be seen. However, those who believe an African nation will lift the global prize before one from Asia would do well to consider the potential of China, who have a population of 1.25 billion to draw upon. As Sir Bobby Charlton said, after a coaching trip to Peking: "They're working on a squad of 800 million kids."

The more pressing concern for Buxton and the coach Chi Shan Bing, is the composition and condition of the 11 to play Iran. Their brief sortie into suburbia had been greatly beneficial in that respect, according to Chen Cheng Da, vice-president of the Chinese FA and a member of Fifa's technical committee: "Apart from the games we played, the boys saw two matches at Arsenal and Palace which were very useful for them. Your teams play very hard, and push up tight, which is not the Asian way. So the whole experience can only help us in our World Cup ambitions."