They should be rivals but while both China and Japan suffered comprehensive defeats on June 15, the nature of the losses was somewhat different.
The Samurai Blue lost 3-0 to Brazil in Brasilia in the opening game of the Confederations Cup. China lost 5-1 at home – in a friendly against Thailand. It was perhaps the most humiliating defeat in the country’s football history.
Commentators on television publicly thanked the War Elephants for stampeding all over national pride and providing a wake-up call, newspapers got stuck in, disgusted students of Xi’an University challenged the stars to a game and the Chinese FA asked all players on duty to submit a list of reasons for the thrashing.
To make matters that little bit worse, it came on the birthday of new president Xi Jinping, a man with a passion for the beautiful game and an interest in ensuring that China finally becomes a serious player in it.
Three home losses in June friendlies summed up the current situation of the Chinese national team.
First, it was used as a warm-up by an Uzbekistan en route to a crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier (a dream which ended for China 18 months ago) in South Korea. It was then used as a lucrative stop-off point for a European giant in the shape of the Netherlands before becoming a punching bag for an under-strength Thai team.
The arrival of David Beckham, an ambassador for Chinese football just 48 hours later to promote the game seemed like something of a bad joke. Even old Goldenballs is going to struggle to put a positive spin on a home thrashing at the hands of Thailand.
But this thrashing was not a turning point. It is not the start of a revolution. It marks a confirmation that the only way to improve Chinese football is to simply make the players better. Before June, nobody was under the illusion that the national team is about to conquer Asia. Minds have not been changed but perhaps resolves have been strengthened.
The Chinese Super League may be improving but at the moment, that is the result of significant spending by a number of clubs -the best and highest-profile of which is Guangzhou Evergrande. Led by 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi and featuring talented overseas stars such as Dario Conca, Lucas Barrios and Muriqui and a good number of the national team, it only seems a matter of when and not if, Guangzhou takes the Asian Champions League crown.
Raising standards of the domestic league is one thing but as Philippe Troussier, former coach of Japan and Marseilles and now in charge of Shenzhen Ruby, points out, doing so across the country as a whole is another.
The money now involved can be a good thing if the successful clubs use the investment they have to develop the Chinese football in terms of youth development and the education of coaches
“The money now involved can be a good thing if the successful clubs use the investment they have to develop the Chinese football in terms of youth development and the education of coaches,” Troussier told Al Jazeera.
The Frenchmen felt that the national team failed to motivate itself against a low-key game that came just days after the glamour clash with the Netherlands.
“This is the reality of Chinese football. Players and coaches are responsible. I felt that the players played individually rather than collectively, maybe because they felt that it would be an easy match especially against a young Thai team. The coach is responsible for choosing the team and the coaching but there are deeper issues.”
The coach is Jose Antonio Camacho who has failed to impress since arriving almost two years ago. Troussier cautions against laying all the blame on the door of the former Real Madrid and Spain boss but the departure of Camacho looks to be necessary
The real decision is whether to stick with recent grassroots investment and try to get more children playing the game. Less than ten thousand Under-12 players are registered in China. In Japan, a country with around 10% of the population, it is over 300,000.
Youth development expert Tom Byer has been hired by the Chinese government as a Head Technical Advisor to the Chinese School Football Program,.
“This is a 10-year program aimed at all level of schools and universities,” said Byer who claims that the difference between the best and worst players in China is huge.
“Currently there are over 120 cities, 6,000 schools and around two million kids. The kids have organised training for around six hours a week. This is a program that actually has a government policy behind it.”
“Youth development is a marathon not a sprint. The good news is that in the beginning, the Chinese government was imposing its will on the cities and schools but now the demand is so great, numbers had to be capped.”
The Thailand disaster is a not a turning point but a reminder that China needs to stay on the right path until the very end.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for over a decade and writes about Asian football for a variety of international and local media including ESPN, Associated Press, The Guardian, 442, New York Times, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated & International Herald Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyduerden