Chinese fans were left dreaming of World Cup glory on Wednesday after they scrambled into Asia’s final qualifying stage with a shock win which left state media purring that “Anything is possible”.
China won 2-0 against Qatar, victors in all seven of their previous games in Group C, to reach the next phase thanks also to the Philippines’ unexpected 3-2 victory over North Korea.
It left some supporters tearful after the “miracle” result in Xi’an produced an unforeseen twist for China, whose hopes of reaching a second World Cup in 2018 had seemed forlorn.
“A miracle should not have been needed, but the miracle occurred. This time, we finally believe that ‘anything is possible’,” said the People’s Daily website.
Huang Bowen and Wu Lei scored in the second half against a lacklustre Qatar team, who had already guaranteed top spot in Group C to reach the next stage.
China’s win, combined with the surprise result in Manila, Australia’s victory over Jordan and Iran’s defeat of Oman, meant Team Dragon went through as one of the four best-performing group runners-up.
It was an outcome which seemed unthinkable after November’s 0-0 draw with Hong Kong, which cost China’s French former coach Alain Perrin his job.
“The happiness that football fans felt is as if the Chinese team qualified for the World Cup,” Xinhuanet.com said in a commentary.
“Tears! 46,000 fans sung the national anthem in Xi’an. Tonight, I’m proud of the national football team!” read a report on leading news site Sina.com.
See more: What's next in Asia World Cup qualifying
And a commentator for state broadcaster CCTV trumpeted after the match: “Football arouses national pride. The goal scored by Huang Bowen is priceless!”
China’s progress could indeed be invaluable as President Xi Jingping spearheads a drive to turn the world’s most populous nation into a genuine football power.
China, listed at 96th in the FIFA rankings, have only reached one World Cup before and have long under-achieved on the international stage.
Australia, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are also through, along with surprise packages Thailand and Syria.
Syria’s coach Fajr Ibrahim told reporters that reaching the next stage represented a special moment for his team, who hoped to give a lift to their war-torn country.
Syria progressed despite a 5-0 defeat by Japan, while Asian champions Australia hammered Harry Redknapp’s Jordan 5-1 to comfortably progress as Group B winners.
“We’ve come a long way in football but more importantly since winning the Asian Cup (last year) we’ve kept the momentum where we still are the strongest team in Asia and we’ve proved it now in this first stage of the qualifying stages,” said striker Tim Cahill, who scored twice for the Socceroos in Sydney.
The eight group winners and four best-placed runners-up, who also earn a spot at the 2019 Asian Cup in UAE, will now be divided into two pools of six for the third round.
The top two in each group will reach the 2018 World Cup, while the two third-placed teams will face each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.
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