As China flew into Seoul on Tuesday for their final group C match against Turkey, thoughts turned to who will guide the nation's next World Cup campaign after they failed to reach the second round on their debut.
With Thursday's game still to play, Chinese soccer officials, media and fans are already agonising over the future of Chinese soccer after a draw between Costa Rica and Turkey eliminated China from the competition.
China are bottom of group C with no points after losing 2-0 to Costa Rica and 4-0 to Brazil.
Coach Bora Milutinovic has been vague about his future plans, saying only that he will take time off to travel with his family, but he is widely expected to stand down when his contract expires at the end of the tournament.
That leaves a question mark over who will guide China to the Asian Cup and the Olympics in 2004 and the next World Cup in 2006.
It is too early to say who will take over as coach but Milutinovic will definitely go, said one source close to the Chinese camp.
"He helped to solve China's psychological problems but now we need to address broader questions about our play and our technical problems," he said.
Assistant coach Shen Xiangfu is the strongest Chinese candidate to take over from Milutinovic, who shook up a psychologically weak side when he took over in 2000 preaching the virtues of happy soccer.
Shen guided a talented team at the World Youth Championships in Argentina last year and was named best men's coach in 2001 by the Chinese Football Association (CFA).
But China is likely to appoint another foreigner as national coach in the next year, sources said.
China wants to follow the example of South Korea and Japan as other nations where football is still developing, said a second source close to the CFA. They both have foreign coaches.
Milutinovic and his players have blamed China's failure this year on a lack of international experience and urged the country to send more players overseas and import more foreign talent.
"It is important that more and more players play overseas and to have more foreign coaches in China," defender Du Wei said after China's final training session on the southern island of Cheju.
"Then we will have a better chance at the next World Cup."
But whoever takes over Milutinovic's job faces a Herculean task if China are to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
Even if Asia is granted five berths, qualifying will be much harder than this time, when China did not face Japan and South Korea, who went through automatically as hosts, and breezed through a soft qualifying group.
As well as exposing China to more foreign players, fundamental reforms are needed within the Chinese professional league, which was rocked by match-fixing and corruption scandals in the last year.
Chinese clubs and conservative soccer officials are also reluctant to promote young talent over more experienced players.
"There is still a difference between the strong teams and us in terms of strategy, tactics and skill. This is the reality and we have to face it," said assistant coach Jin Zhiyang before leaving Cheju. "We have to face the music and find the root of our problems.
"There is a distance between us and Korea and Japan," he said. "It is unlikely we can close the gap in a short period of time."