The Road to 2010 Begins to be Paved...

The 2010 World Cup seems off in the distant future, but qualifying for it has already begun and if you were like most people, busy on some wonderful New Year's vacation, or just parked in front of the tv watching the annual New Year's Gala, you missed the fact that China played its first qualifying match on New Year's Eve.

First off, the post's title isn't (really) meant as a (somewhat) intelligent gibe at the 2010 host nation, South Africa. I just want to get that out of the way. Anyways, on New Year's Eve, after Australia had basically decimated the group's presumed punching bag, Qatar (a strong team, but one that is more or less overmatched in this group), 3-nil at home, China was to take on Iraq in Dubai.

The lineup for the first match that "counted" in the Petrovic era was an interesting mix of mostly established, young(ish) players with a few surprises, including Qu Bo and Xu Yunlong getting starts. Petrovic kept Sun Jihai on the bench for the majority of the game and brought him on as a late sub, it will be interesting if this was a one-time thing or signifies Sun's future role for the national team. The media has made a lot of the fact that half of the starters lacked experience in WC Qualifying matches, yet that doesn't seem to be a valid excuse considering those without the WC Qualifying experience do have Asian Cup experience. None of these players, with the possible exception of keeper Zong Lei, are lacking in big game experience.

As for the game, well, those that chose to watch the New Year's Gala (or do just about anything other than watching the match) made the right choice. A scoreless, physical first half which saw Iraq lose its star Mahmoud Younis was followed by Iraq grabbing an early lead in the second half, but then going a man down not long after. China had a number of excellent chances as it seemed the Iraqi defense was in disorder and hadn't properly adjusted to going a man down, the Chinese side didn't let the opportunity go to waste and Zheng Zhi was able to bang in a header in the 75th minute. China followed it up with a few more chances, but they were unable to pull ahead, instead settling for an away draw.

Typical logic dictates that an away draw isn't a bad result, especially considering the opponent was the Asian champion. There was also the added pressure that this game was being played on China's New Year's Eve. In reality, this was a winnable game, especially when Iraq lost its best player (early) AND went a man down. It's going to be a long, tough road for China and home results will be crucial, this time around China has chosen Kunming to play host to its home matches and the big clash will be March 26th against Australia.  Perhaps even more importantly will be the June 14th home match against Iraq, the penultimate group stage match.  A win in that game could decide it all as China ends the group stage matches in Australia, a huge challenge.  In between March and June, China can't take their 2 games against Qatar for granted if they wish to advance.

As a fan of uniwatch, my focus wasn't only on the game but also on the uniforms.  China appeared to be wearing their old jerseys and have yet to introduce the "Great Wall" uniform (unless they only plan on introducing a new home kit and keeping the old red kit).  On the other hand, Iraq fixed their Asian Cup uniform madness (players wearing 3 different style tops, all with different fonts and logos) and are now sponsored by Chinese company, Peak.  

As has been previously discussed on this blog, this continues the trend of smaller Chinese companies finding ways to market to a Chinese audience.  Peak has been masters at this, signing a deal with the Houston Rockets as well as Rocket Shane Battier (who does commercials on Chinese tv with the uninspiring tagline "I can play").  I highly doubt Peak sells athletic wear in Iraq (or Dubai), but by signing the Iraqi team, a team Chinese fans will be paying a lot of attention to and whose group stage games (at least in this round), will be all over Chinese tv, they are able to get in through the back door and earn themselves a lot of exposure.  Expect to see even more of this kind of marketing, especially at the Beijing Olympics.

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