Monday 20 April 2020, 01:58

Zhao reflects on the far-fetched dream that became reality

  • As a boy Zhao Junzhe stated a dream of playing at a World Cup

  • He featured as China made their lone World Cup appearance in 2002

  • Zhao has high hopes for Team Dragon under new coach Li Tie

The story of former China PR international Zhao Junzhe realising his childhood dream is indeed an inspirational one.

In 1992, a 12-year-old Zhao - then a player of Liaoning's provincial youth team - openly stated his goals in front of the media: "I will work hard and try to take China to the World [Cup]."

Talented though he was, it seemed little more than a typical dream of any child footballer. Not to mention the world's most populous country had failed in qualifying for the previous three FIFA World Cups™ and for many, they seemed far from ready to mount a serious challenge for World Cup qualification.

Almost preposterously, the dream did in fact become reality. Zhao represented China in their maiden World Cup appearance at Korea/Japan 2002. Notably, he started against Brazil, rattling the woodwork against Luiz Felipe Scolari's eventual champions - the closest China have come to breaking their World Cup scoring duck.

"Our generation grew up with the ambition of reaching the World Cup," Zhao, now the general manager of Shijiazhuang Yongchang FC, told "As kids, we were aware of the duties to 'overcome Asia and go to the world'. For us, it was more than a slogan. It was a mission and dream."

Early hardship

Born in Shenyang, Zhao started playing football in 1985, the year when China saw their hopes of qualifying for Mexico 1986 shattered again with an agonising defeat against Hong Kong.

His mentor was none other than Zhang Yin, a famous youth team coach renowned for nurturing a series of Chinese internationals. "Coach Zhang launched a youth team and my father, a fervent football fan, wanted me to join them," he said.

From there Zhao began his illustrious footballing career but his early days were not without hardship. "We lived far away from where my team trained and every morning, before daybreak, my dad rode me there for over an hour on a bicycle. In winter days it was so cold.

"My father was a laid-off worker and to support me he managed a small business in a seafood market. He tried every means possible to urge me to work hard. He had high hopes for me.”

It’s fair to say Zhao more than lived up to his father's hopes. The following years saw Zhao develop into one of the country's hottest prospects. He received his first national team call-up in 1998 as a teenager and excelled throughout that year’s Asian Games as China won bronze.

China walk out for their first-ever FIFA World Cup match against Costa Rica at Korea/Japan 2002

World Cup call

Zhao continued to make solid progress, helping Liaoning seal a return to the top-flight in 1998 and three years later, he became the club's youngest captain at the age of 22.

And after China’s history-making World Cup qualification under Bora Milutinovic, he received the call-up from the four-time FIFA World Cup coach despite missing the qualifying campaign.

“It was exciting,” Zhao said. “Returning to the national team meant that I was inches away from fulfilling my World Cup dream.

“I think my performances on the domestic front helped ‘Milu’ make the selection. Besides, our opponents in the World Cup were much stronger and probably he needed a holding midfielder like me to help with the team’s defence.”

China's World Cup debut, however, didn't go as hoped with the team conceding nine unanswered goals in defeats against Costa Rica (2-0), Brazil (4-0) and Turkey (3-0). For Zhao, though, it was their lack of experience that proved costly.

"Many of us were tense on the pitch,"he said. "After all, it was our first time performing on the global stage. The rivals were world-class teams. But our showings were not as bad as the scorelines suggested. And we could have played better if we had been given another chance.

"Our 2002 squad was good. We played a goalless draw against Guus Hiddink's Korea Republic in a pre-tournament friendly. We had several overseas-based players. When Hiddink coached China's U-23 side two years ago, he told me: 'Zhao, you had a very good team in 2002'."

Zhao continued to improve with Team Dragon after the World Cup under new boss Arie Haan. Zhao became China’s vice-captain during the 2004 AFC Asian Cup where they finished runners-up, and where his performances helped him win that year’s CFA Player of the Year award.

Prospects for Qatar 2022

Korea/Japan 2002 remains, however, China’s only World Cup appearance. The team have struggled in Asia’s second qualifying round for Qatar 2022 trailing Group A leaders Syria by eight points. Despite their modest campaign, Zhao believes that fortunes can be revived under new boss Li Tie, another veteran of Korea/Japan 2002.

“Li Tie has the credentials of managing the team,” he said of the former Everton player. “He played a key role in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002, as well as at the World Cup. He knows well what it takes to succeed. And since turning to management, he has been very successful. I think the team can play well under his guidance.”

Ronaldinho of Brazil and Junzhe Zhao of China