China happy just to get to finals
China step on to the pitch at the World Cup finals this year with one victory already in the bag.
By qualifying for their first ever finals, China broke a 44-year jinx and took another giant leap in their quest for acceptance as a world sporting power.
So whatever happens on the pitch, China's 80-odd million soccer fans will be celebrating an historic triumph when the competition kicks off in South Korea and Japan on May 31.
China are not tipped to progress beyond the first round in which they face Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey in group C.
But their Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic has guided four previous countries into the second round of previous World Cups -- Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica and Nigeria.
And with some 100,000 Chinese soccer fans expected to travel to South Korea to cheer them on, China have the confidence and the commitment to spring a few upsets.
"We are physically and tactically strong. In fact, my team have few weaknesses. And our big advantage is that we have nothing to lose," said Milutinovic.
"Milu", as he is known throughout China, has been careful not to put too much pressure on his squad.
"I hope the time it takes China to become the World Cup champions won't exceed 50 years," he said at a state ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to honour the squad last year. "This shows I'm very confident in the Chinese team."
But he arranged last-minute friendlies against fellow World Cup finalists to give his men a taste of what is to come.
Milutinovic has kept the 4-4-2 formation he inherited from Briton Bob Houghton but transformed it into a quick-strike unit which blossomed in the final round of qualifiers after 18 months of sub-par results.
A turning point was his decision in August to realign his midfield into a diamond capable of exploiting holes opened up by strikers acting as decoys.
The scheme worked to perfection in China's 3-0 rout of Qatar when veteran midfielder Ma Mingyu faked a shot from the flank before feeding to Qu Bo, who drilled home the ball.
The speedy Qu, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder recently elevated from China's youth team, is one of several young substitutes who netted goals and gained experience as the team clinched their berth with two qualifiers still to play.
Former Crystal Palace defenders Sun Jihai, recently signed by Manchester City, and Fan Zhiyi, now on loan to Shanghai Zhongyuan Huili from Dundee, are the core of a seasoned defence capable of launching swift counter-attacks.
China's brightest young player is defensive midfielder Li Tie of Liaoning Bird.
Li, an inexhaustible 25-year-old emerging as playmaker, has attracted interest from Ajax Amsterdam and Dundee, not least by setting up the goal that clinched China's berth in the finals.
He is one reason China consistently dominated the midfield during their qualifying matches.
But feisty Li, China's player of 2001, was banned for five matches and fined 20,000 ($2,400) by Chinese soccer's governing body in March after a fistfight during a domestic league match.
Milutinovic, who has called Li "irreplaceable", said the ban could have hurt China's prospects.
"Li Tie should learn from this incident," Milutinovic said.
Milutinovic has shaken off many of the critics who bayed for his blood after sloppy performances and infighting just before the World Cup qualifiers.
But for some fans and sports reporters, the team have yet to shed their image as a scrappy side whose luck can turn on a bounce.
The real sceptics say China qualified only because they did not play Japan and South Korea, both of whom won a berth in the finals automatically as hosts.
In preliminary rounds, China notched up only narrow wins over footballing minnows the Maldives and Cambodia. And in February, Milutinovic's men suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of tiny Hong Kong.
Critics say the team lack exposure to top-class international players like those they will face in group C, partly due to the small number of friendlies China played before Milutinovic took over in 2000.
"It's not impossible for us...because nothing is impossible in football but we have to be realistic: it will be far from straightforward," Milutinovic said.
"Being drawn with Brazil means that right from the off the other three teams are vying for second place," he said.