National team coach eyes World Cup

2015-05-13 10:12China Daily Editor: Si Huan

As coach of China's national soccer team, 58-year-old Frenchman Alain Perrin not only has the support of the world's most populous country - he also has the backing of its top leader.

President Xi Jinping, an avid soccer fan, has made no secret of his determination to improve the game's image as he leads reform initiatives.

"The top man in the country likes soccer and wants to improve its level in China," Perrin said in an exclusive interview with China Daily. "So soccer has a high level of support.

"They have taken some decisions to improve the game from the grassroots and the schools, and in terms of the development of soccer, I think China is in good shape."

In March, the State Council issued a comprehensive reform plan for soccer, streamlining the sport's widely criticized management system and promoting the game at the grassroots level.

Under the Minister of Education's guidance, soccer has become a compulsory part of physical education classes. The ministry has set a target for establishing more soccer academies, and aims to train up to 6,000 soccer teachers this year. It plans to have 20,000 primary and middle schools focusing on the sport by 2017.

Perrin welcomed the reform plan, saying the grassroots level is a good place to start, but added that patience will be required.

"The only way to improve soccer is to start at the grassroots, and it's very important to begin now," he said. "But if you start with young players you need to be patient, because you won't see results in just two or three years - you have to wait 10 years."

Zhang Jian, secretary-general of the Chinese Football Association, said: "The attention from the top leadership injects vigor into the development of soccer.

"This development cannot reach its target in one move, it requires efforts from all parties."

But time is limited for Perrin's national team, as his aim is to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The second round of the qualification process for Asian teams starts next month.

Forty teams have been drawn into eight groups of five and will compete on a home-and-away basis. China is in Group C along with Qatar, the Maldives, Bhutan and Hong Kong, and will play its first match against Bhutan on June 16.

The group winners and four highest placed runners-up will advance to the final round of qualifying.

Perrin said he does not feel under pressure to qualify because of Xi's keen interest in soccer, but is well aware that the whole country expects a satisfactory outcome.

"Many people expect good results from the national team. I knew that before coming here," said Perrin, who took charge of the squad in February of last year.

"Our target is to go to Russia, and we want to make a good start in the first qualifying game. The first aim is to finish top of the group.

"We need to prepare the players and ensure they are ambitious.

"It's my philosophy to always do my best to get the result. We should give them the desire to do their best and improve on what they achieved in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia."

Under Perrin's guidance, China - which went into the tournament as an underdog - surprised observers by winning its three group matches before losing 2-0 to host Australia in the quarterfinals.

This was the team's best performance at the continental showpiece since 2004.

"I have a lot of confidence in my players because we have very good spirit," he said. "They are good men, they want to improve and they fight. We are a very young team and we are ambitious. I think the future is bright."

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