The home team laid on a goal fest and the fans delivered the deafening cheers as Suzhou played host to spine-tingling scenes rarely witnessed in world soccer since the pandemic began.
Roared on by 30,000 passionate supporters inside Suzhou Olympic Sports Center Stadium, Team China got the final phase of its World Cup Group A qualification campaign off to a flying start, with the return of spectators en masse serving as a timely reminder of China’s successful fight against the coronavirus.
China’s ongoing vigilance against the virus saw the remaining Group A qualifiers on Monday relocated from Suzhou to Dubai, after the Maldives squad－originally scheduled to fly to China on the same flight as the Syria team－reported one positive case.
“Because of the COVID-19 infection situation within the Maldivian and Syrian teams, and China’s regulations regarding foreign travelers, the two teams will not be able to attend their matches as per the original schedule,” read a Chinese Football Association statement.
“Based on advice from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the CFA has agreed to relocate the remaining World Cup Asian zone Group A qualifiers from Suzhou to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.”
Given the success of that opening game in Suzhou, where the CFA implemented comprehensive COVID-19 prevention regulations to safeguard the health of the players and fans, switching the remaining games to Dubai was surely a decision made with a heavy heart.
The AFC was clearly pleased with how the Jiangsu province city performed its hosting duties, tweeting a picture of the cheering Chinese fans after the game, accompanied by the message: “There’s no better sight than the sight of fans cheering on their beloved team.”
Sunday’s rout of Guam was wholly expected, however the assured manner of Team China’s performance instilled some extra confidence in the squad for its three remaining Group A games in Dubai.
Star striker Wu Lei bagged a brace on his return to international action following a lengthy hiatus, scoring a 20th-minute opener from the penalty spot and hitting the net again for China’s third of the night in the 55th.
“I really want to thank all the fans who came to the stadium to cheer for us. Due to the pandemic, we haven’t played under such circumstances with so many fans watching us for nearly two years,” said Wu, who spent last year in Spain with Espanyol and missed all Team China’s training camps in 2020.
“All the players are very excited today, and the fans have created a great atmosphere for all of us. I hope we can deliver more victories to bring them more joy.
“I haven’t been with the national team for around a year and a half, but I was constantly in contact with the squad via the WeChat group. I knew all the plans and I have always been with them in some way. I felt the team was in great spirits when I returned.
“I’m thrilled and excited to return to the team, despite the long journey here being a little bit too tiring for me… But I have quickly got up to speed and I can sense the team has made some good progress.”
Team China captain Wu Xi and Brazil-born naturalized forward Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson) contributed the fourth and fifth goals. Another Brazil-born player, A Lan, completed the rout with a double in the final 10 minutes as the atmosphere in the stadium reached boiling point.
The victory was also the perfect way for head coach Li Tie to mark his first official match in charge. The former Everton midfielder took the reins in early 2020, but had been limited to friendly games because of the disruption to the schedule caused by the pandemic.
The last time Team China was roared on by home fans was in October 2019, when the host produced the same 7-0 result over the same opposition.
“I want to say thank you to all the fans at the stadium, in front of the TV and online. We enjoyed the great atmosphere in the arena, and all our players are very excited today. The game has helped the players gel even better, so this was a really useful match for us,” said Li.
“I don’t want to comment too much on a single player. Anyone who steps onto the pitch can become a national hero, even if he only has five minutes.
“All the players need to prepare for the matches to the best of their ability. I’m satisfied with the players’ mentality on the pitch today. We knew the opponent was not a strong team, but still everyone has showed great spirit in both attack and defense.”
China will be expected to easily see off the Maldives on Thursday (although this could be subject to change because of the switch to Dubai). Tougher tests then await－against the Philippines and Syria.
Sunday’s triumph sees China stay second in Group A behind Syria. The eight group winners and four best second-place finishers will enter the next phase of qualifying, with the odds stacked against China eventually qualifying for the 2022 finals in Qatar.
Losing home advantage in Suzhou has certainly not helped the team’s cause.
Still, the Guam win has at least restored some pride in the national team, with topics related to the win viewed over 400 million times on Weibo by Monday morning.
China’s women’s national soccer team was among those to offer congratulations to Li’s men. “Hope the team can keep winning in the remaining World Cup Asian qualifiers. Fight on! You will always have the support from the Steel Roses,” read a Weibo post from the Tokyo Olympics-bound squad.